At first glance, 2006’s Inside Man appeared to be a very different movie for Spike Lee than most of the work he’s known for. For one thing, he didn’t write it; Russell Gewirtz did. For another, it’s set firmly in the bank heist and hostage negotiation genres, which were pretty far away from most of what Lee had done up until that point.
But at the same time, Inside Man, which arrived in theaters in March 2006, 15 years ago last week, is a great fit in Lee’s filmography. It’s a New York film through and through, with the sorts of New York and ethnic touches that are pure Lee. It also paid clear homage to Dog Day Afternoon, the greatest of New York City heist movies.
And while it’s far from Lee’s most overtly political work, it has some points to make about how power is wielded and who gets away with what, and in the end, the film turns out to be something completely different from it appeared: A tale of revenge for crimes committed during the Holocaust.
And yes, it includes Lee’s trademark People Mover shot:
Inside Man is the story of a bank robbery, but quite different from most: a group of people (led by Clive Owen) enter a bank with guns, like they do in every other movie bank robbery, and take everyone in the bank hostage. But before long, the robbers, who are wearing painter uniforms, make all the hostages put on the uniforms too — so neither the police nor the audience knows who among them, besides Owen, are the criminals.
And even more unconventionally, the robbers aren’t after money at all, but rather something else entirely.
It’s a New York film through and through, with the sorts of New York and ethnic touches that are pure Lee
Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor play the cops investigating the robbery, with Washington, in another standout collaboration with Lee, acting as the main negotiator with Owen. Christopher Plummer plays the owner of the bank, a man struggling to keep a very damaging secret, while Jodie Foster is a mysterious power broker charged with keeping that secret.
There are some noted actors in smaller roles, like The Wire‘s James Ransone, Ken Leung, and two actors, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Lionel Pina, who were in the other great New York bank hostage situation movie, Dog Day Afternoon. The film also includes one of the best roles of Clive Owen’s big aughts run as a movie star, which didn’t last nearly long enough.
Inside Man, in addition to that first-rate cast, boasts one of the best scripts of that era. It’s tight and thought-out, and it parcels out just the right amount of information while making sense on rewatch.
Sure, there are some things that don’t quite make sense — why would the villain keep the evidence of his Nazi collaboration in a safe deposit box, rather than destroy it? How did Owen have a cell phone for the entire week he was hiding in the bank, and how did it stay powered?
Also, you’d think Plummer’s character would be way older in 2006 if he was already an adult during the war. And it’s one of those movies where I’d love to read the tabloid media coverage of the events of it, and how they explain that a heist that was all over the news was never solved and “buried.”
Overall, Inside Man belongs near the top of Lee’s filmography, behind Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour — all New York stories, to some degree — and roughly on par with Da 5 Bloods and BlacKKKlansman.