Sunday, March 26, 2006

Inside Man

The perfect robbery has been the idea behind many films. The films even have their own genre: heist films. Sometimes the robbers get away with it; sometimes the police outsmart them; sometimes the robbers outsmart themselves. A really good heist film will leave the audience amazed at the intricacy of the plot. Inside Man is one of the best.

This is the new film from Spike Lee. It has a very different feel from many of his earlier, edgier works. It isn’t as in your face as Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X. He doesn’t seem to feel the need to be quite as strong in his statements. But don’t take that to mean that he doesn’t still have something to say.

This heist film boils down to a confrontation between Dalton Russell, who masterminded this perfect crime and Detective Keith Frazier, the hostage negotiator dealing with the situation. Their cat and mouse (who is who?) game keeps taking fascinating turns all through the film. Russell doesn’t seem all that upset that the bank is surrounded by half the police in Manhattan. Frazier isn’t sure why he’s so calm about it. What is really going on? We can tell this is more than just your everyday heist.

Add to the mix the interference of Madeline White, a “fixer” with friends in very high places. A client wants to make sure something in the bank is kept safe from the robbers. She pulls strings so that Frazier has to accommodate her agenda. If he goes along, he could get a promotion. If not, he could end up the fall guy. He just wants to do his job.

On the superficial level of heist film, this film gets all the stars you can give it, in spite of a couple of holes in the story (one major, one minor). I’m willing to overlook those holes since everything else is done so well. This is a great, mind challenging trip through a twisty and exciting plot.

At a deeper level, the film becomes much more than just a nifty crime drama. It is about something important that is all around us in society – corruption. Where this film differs from many heist films is that it’s not about discovering who the corrupt character is – a cop or a robber. In fact, as the film unfolds, we discover that Russell and Frazier may be the most moral people in the story. We see the corruption in White’s efforts to do what her client wants. In fact, nearly everything she touches is corrupt. She has worked for powerful people. Her price is not paid only in money, but in “friendship.” At one point she tells Frazier that she does what she does not by making enemies, but by making friends. These friends she can then call on for the favors she needs to help others. She corrupts even the idea of friendship.

She enters the story to help Arthur Case (who is chairman of the board of the bank being robbed) keep something secret that is in his safe deposit box. It could lead to a great deal of embarrassment for him. It is a reminder of the corruption of his past – sins that he has been trying to atone for with good works for many decades. White goes to the mayor (one of her former clients) who gets her the help she needs. (He’s a politician; of course we’ll accept him as corrupt.)

But when White gets to talk with Russell, we discover he knows all about Case’s secret. He will not play along. What Case did was wrong and Russell will keep him twisting in the wind. He probably won’t blackmail him –just that someone knows will be hell enough for Case.

We also see Russell as something more than a thief. He cares about the people here, even as he holds them hostage. He is constantly gruff and threatening, but is his bite as bad as his bark? When he talks with a child hostage playing a video game that deals with stealing cars, dealing drugs and killing people, Russell is appalled. He sees the corrupting influence on such a game. He makes a point that he’ll have to have a talk with the boy’s father. He cares about Frazier when he talks to him. When Frazier mentions that his girl friend wants to get married, Russell counsels him about love. Frazier also is one who isn’t interested in the offers from White. After the robbery ends, he pushes on with his investigation even after the word comes down from on high to let it go. White tries to make it clear to him that it would be best for him to be her friend. He is more concerned with the truth. And we know that somehow, he will find a way to that truth. Strangely, that is also what Russell seems to want – that the truth come out.

Ten years ago, Spike Lee would have shouted to us about corruption. Now he shows us more subtly – maybe because corruption often is so subtle. It may happen when we have the best of motives. It just entwines around our lives until we are captured and wake up one morning to see how trapped we are in that corruption. The real hostages are not the people in the bank. The real hostages are those people who have been corrupted by the world that steals our morality.

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