With “Inside Man,” Spike Lee successfully makes the transition from “black film director” to simply “film director,” creating a tense and entertain- ing bank robbery movie in the tradition of “Die Hard” and “Heist.” As the police detective in charge of the investigation, Denzel Washington only happens to be black; his race is not essential to his character, nor is African-American culture highlighted or stereotyped. Multiple cultures are acknowledged – in the driving Indian music of the opening soundtrack, in the outrage of a Sikh witness forced to remove his turban, in the odd politeness of the bank robbers to a rabbi who has become one of their hostages. As if to emphasize his transition to colorblind filmmaking, Lee dresses most of the actors (bank robbers and hostages) exactly alike, even covering their faces and hands.
Lee tells the story in non-linear time, using a washed-out film development technique to indicate that interviews with released hostages are taking place in the future – a technique that works well. The surreal lighting of the over-
wash adds to the tension of the story. As with all good cops-and-robbers narratives, figuring out “why” and “how” the heist is committed is just as important as figuring out “who” did it, and the story has enough twists and turns to maintain suspense from start to finish.
Lee’s direction is subtle but effective, eliciting from his Big Star actors a different kind of character from the ones they normally play. Gone are the knowing nod and pensive U okay” that seem to have become Washington’s signature in recent films. Jodie Foster, whose only romantic role was “Sommersby” (1993), is positively flirty with both Washing- ton and Christopher Plummer, who plays the bank’s founder. I’m not sure I like her as a coquette, but I’m impressed that Lee drew that character out of her. Clive Owen plays the head bank robber with an eerie coolness and enigmatic motivation, commanding the audience to “Pay attention. I’m only going to say this once.”
One aspect of the film that seems to hark back to Lee’s roots as a black film director is his overuse of profanity, early in the film. The bank robbers bombard their hostages – and the audience – with the F-word. As profanity flies like bullets from a machine gun, I myself feel physically assaulted. Why can’t an intelligent director tap into a wider and more effective vocabulary?
Yet this is precisely Lee’s point. The robbers use profanity as a deliberate form of control over their hostages, instilling fear and submission in their captives as effectively as if they were literally beating them. In a previous Jodie Foster film, “Panic Room,” the character playing her daughter counsels her, “Use the F-word!” when Foster is try- ing to frighten away some intruders. The girl instinctively understands that using certain words aggressively can be a form of violence and power. There’s a reason it’s called “strong language.” My point is that such language should be reserved for situations that call for violence, not used indiscriminately, in ordinary conversation. Hearing it presented honestly in this film, as an intentional act of violence, makes it almost worth enduring.
If you have never seen a Spike Lee movie because you don’t like “that kind of film,” this one may change your mind. “Inside Man” is worth the price of a ticket and popcorn.