Directors often encourage the audience not to ask questions or come up with their own ideas. Rather, we are expected to remain one step ahead of the central characters, aware of the answers to their problems as we watch them stumble toward the truth. However, in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” the audience is left as in the dark as the film’s protagonist, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington). With this added air of suspense, what could have easily been just another heist film becomes a refreshing take on the genre, boasting an all-star cast that includes Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer.
In the first scene of the film, Dalton Russell (Owen, as a strikingly eloquent thief), warns audience members to pay close attention to his words and the events they are about to witness. Russell explains how he led a successful bank robbery as well as the motives behind his actions – mainly, money and ego. Likewise, Russell offers a kind of riddle – he lives in a place that is like a cell, but he is not in prison. Hence, Russell answers every question the audience may immediately have except for the “how” and the “where.” Following his setup, the film recedes into a lengthy flashback as seen through his eyes.
That’s when Detective Frazier comes into the picture. Frazier eagerly agrees to lead negotiations between the New York Police Dept. and Russell’s anonymous band of robbers who are occupying the nearby bank. Frazier’s negotiations lead to dead end after dead end as the two play a game of cat and mouse, each trying to understand one another as well as negotiate the terms of the hostage release.
In the midst of the Frazier/Russell storyline, a formidable opponent/ally enters in the form of Madeline White (Foster). White has been employed by the bank’s mysterious owner, Arthur Case (Plummer). White is called upon to protect Case’s interests – the details of which even she does not know. Now Frazier has to do more than coerce Russell to release the hostages and turn himself in. How does one negotiate with an opponent who harbors an unclear motive, and who/what is Madeline protecting?
Although “Inside Man” is being heralded as Lee’s most mainstream film to date – and indeed, it proves quite a departure from films such as “Do the Right Thing” and “Bamboozled” – it remains a staple of the innovative director’s ability to tweak a genre to not only suit his needs, but the needs of the audience.
Unlike many directors, Lee begs his audience to be intelligent and to keep up with the fast-paced storyline. Often, filmmakers fail to make their audience think, dismissing intelligence in exchange for a more marketable product. He asks the audience questions and does not divulge the answers until the last minute of the film’s climax. While one might, at times, feel like an unwilling passenger in this high-speed chase of a film, the end result makes it more than worth the ride.