Its been a while since there has been a really thought provoking and interesting drama or thriller that does not rely on gimics, special effects, or large impressive sets or scenic vistas, but we have one now in Spike Lee's sparkling new film 'Inside Man'. Filmed largely in a single bank location and its surroundings this film is long on story and acting, and does not require razzamatazz to carry the film along. It is an example of old fashioned film-making at its best, and what a cast it has! We have Christopher Plummer as the regal Mr. Chase the owner of the Manhattan Bank in question, we have Willem Defoe as a police captain, we have Denzel Washington as the dashing Detective Frazier, we have Jody Foster as Ms. White the deal maker and intervention specialist, and we have Clive Owen as the mastermind bad guy--- or is he?
In one sense this drama is a morality play, as we see how different persons, in a crisis, are prepared to compromise their ethics either to survive, or profit or get revenge, or rescue hostages. But this is no ordinary hostage movie, because the bandit in question is not actually a bankrobber, nor has he any desire to kill any of those trapped in the bank when it is taken over by Clive Owen's gang.
The tension in the narrative is not caused by the question of whether the hostages will be released or not, for periodically throughout the movie we see them being debriefed by Frazier after they have been freed. No, the drama is driven by a series of related questions, for example--- What exactly do these bank robbers want? What are they after? It is clearly not money, or attention, or ransom for hostages. And what is it that Mr. Chase has hidden in that secret safety deposit box in that bank of his, which he is prepared to do anything to make sure is not revealed? But there is so much more.
Lee also explores racism and bigotry of all sorts on and off the NY police force throughout the movie, but he does it with a light touch. At one point Frazier (i.e. Washington) listening to the complaints of police brutality by a Indian Sikkh employee of the bank, complains his rights were trampled on and asks when he and his religion will be respected (he keeps asking for his turban to be returned). When he can't get even this, Frazier points out that at least one thing is going his way-- "I bet you don't have any trouble getting a cab", because of course there are so many Indian cab drivers in Manhattan. New York is seen as the melting pot that is more like a salad bowl where all the different nationalities exist side by side, but without blending together very much.
In an ensemble cast of this kind one could have wished perhaps for a bit longer film so Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer had even more opportunity to shine. There is no question but that Washington is the star of the show, but there are many wonderful bit parts and scenes which enrich the story, not the least of which is the 9 year old African American kid from Brooklyn who gives both the bankrobbers and the police his 'shtick" without fear. Would that there were more movies that were long on story and acting, and short on gimics.
But at the end of the day there is a further profound question underlying this film. Does a lifetime of good works, make up for some hideous sin of the past or should we say 'be sure your sins will find you out'? The supposed bad guy is the one who raises the deeper questions about love and truth. Spike Lee is smart enough and respects his audience enough to not tie up all the loose ends. And several aspects of the movie can be debated. But this is the sign of a good story which scares up more rabbits than it chases down. It will take a lot for there to be a better drama than this one this year. Ron Howard and the Da Vinci Code crew has just been put on notice.