When is a Spike Lee "joint" not a Spike Lee "joint"? When
Spike Lee is just a gun for hire in the director's chair, as is the
case with
INSIDE MAN. The last time Lee directed a film he
didn't write was the excellent
25TH HOUR, a drama that unfolded
in lower Manhattan with the ruins of the World Trade Center as
a backdrop. Once again working from someone else's screenplay --
in this case, that of newcomer Russell Gewirtz, the director
doesn't quite enjoy the same success.

  INSIDE MAN is essentially a hostage thriller about a group
of thieves who enter a bank in downtown Manhattan and set
out to steal ... well, that's part of the plot and I'd be remiss if I
revealed it. Just suffice it to say that the existence of the material
that is the object of the caper is one of the big plot holes in the
drama. Why the owner would have held on to such incriminating
evidence is a mystery. Why he would hide it in a safe deposit box
instead of destroying it is another. Then again, if he had done
that, there wouldn't be any film.

  INSIDE MAN opens with a man telling us his name, Dalton
Russell (portrayed well by Clive Owen), and describing the what,
where and when of the bank robbery that is the subject of the film.
Although he promises to tell us the "why," it will take nearly two
hours before that question is made clear. Russell is a fairly
smart man who meticulously plans each detail of the heist. If
one pays attention closely, one can figure out one part of a
"surprise" twist.

  Facing off against him is Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel
Washington), a hostage negotiator with baggage. Seems some
money from another case has "disappeared" and Frazier is being
investigated by Internal Affairs. He also has a policewoman
girlfriend who is angling for a ring. Washington imbues the
character with flash but his role, like nearly all of the parts
in the film, is rather ill conceived. One wonders what drew
the actor to the character other than Lee behind the camera.

  The same feelings arise when Jodie Foster appears as
Madeline White, a political fixer. She's supposed to be a mover
and shaker, and certainly Ms. Foster is a strong presence but
something was missing for me. Maybe that she's been given
the idea of a character and left to flesh it out on her own.
Foster creates a slightly villainous character but for long
stretches of the movie she disappears. There are the compulsory
scenes with Washington and Owen, as well as with Christopher
Plummer as the bank's chairman, but the part feel
undernourished and underdeveloped.

  Since the film revolves around a bank heist and
hostages, the script makes a passing reference to one of the
best films ever made in that genre -- Sidney Lumet's
DOG DAY AFTERNOON. Lee also has cast Marcia Jean Kurtz
as an elderly hostage. Those with long memories will recall
her as one of the bank employees in the Lumet movie.

  Still, I was disappointed by
INSIDE MAN. The screenplay
had flashes of brilliance, and Lee directs some sequences with
an assured touch, but overall, the movie doesn't coalesce as it
should. The final "twist" to the plot is given particularly short
shrift by the director. With all the talent involved, and that
includes Willem Dafoe as the cop in charge of the situation,
and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Washington's partner, one would
expect more.

          Rating:                  C +
          MPAA Rating:          R for language and some
                                            violent images
          Running time:         129 min.

                Viewed at the AMC Loews 84th Street 6
Inside Man
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.