Prior to last week's opening of their latest film, Inside Man director Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington conducted a joint television interview on BET, a lively discussion of their experiences making films together. On the surface, Lee and Washington's current collaboration -- a big-budget Hollywood genre movie -- would seem to be the most impersonal film in the director's filmography, but like so many great studio movies in the past, Lee has used an ostensibly standard genre flick to explore more personal concerns, a strategy Lee and Washington's interview underscored.
Inside Man is essentially a heist movie, though the bank job at the center of the film is much more than a simple robbery. There are hostages and there is the charismatic hostage negotiator (Washington), a man with a tarnished (noirish) reputation looking for redemption. Washington revels in a part that exchanges the angst he's typically saddled with for attitude and one-liners.
At $50 million, this is Lee's biggest budget and most commercial plot. Yet the film still pumps with the lifeblood of New York, which for Lee has always owed to the city's wonderful diversity. In his televised conversation with Washington, Lee discussed the moment when he decided to become a filmmaker. Home from Morehouse College for the infamous "Summer of Sam," Lee recalled how he spent his break letting his new Super 8 camera capture the tension and release of the city.
And this feel for the city, this attention to detail and character, enlivens the movie's procedural staples -- the bank takeover, police preparation, etc. In Inside Man, unlike most contemporary studio thrillers, the cops aren't just cops. They're identifiable New York cops -- racist, dedicated, yet ultimately lovable. When it comes time to translate the cryptic recording of the robbers inside the bank, the police don't use the Albanian consulate. They just get the ex-wife of the construction worker from around the corner.
Inside Man works for several reasons. The script is wonderful, both for plot and dialogue, and stands out not only for its quality but also its confidence. Lee is in command of the camera, the action is always clear, and there are several nontraditional shots that work wonderfully. Washington's gift of gab is on full display.
In the end, though, the real success of the film is in its latent message. This robbery is about the circles of power that surround any institution and the wages of sin that you pay to enter. The film, after all, might be Lee's metaphor for Hollywood. Forget a robbery that isn't all it seems. What about a major motion picture that ends with ambiguity?
"I want to become a gatekeeper," Lee told Washington during their talk, bemoaning the fact that even as a major director, he lacked any real studio clout.
Inside Man succeeds as a bid for major-league status, and the movie as a product stays true to the message of the film: To succeed you have to get your hands dirty, but that doesn't mean you have to compromise.