When a filmmaker with a ton of integrity turns around and makes a fairly generic bank-heist picture, critics like me always go, "Sell out!" But I think it was a smart move for Spike Lee to take a short break from his usual in-your-face tub-thumping for "The Inside Man."
That's a short break; I'm not saying he should leave racial politics - not that he would. I'm saying that one of the most talented American directors is also kind of a pain, and it's good to see him tell a story without trying to dazzle us so much that he upstages his own movie.
Apart from the concert "The Original Kings of Comedy," Lee hasn't done much at the box-office in years; and "The Inside Man" must be intended to give him Hollywood street cred. Clive Owen plays a cool robber who seizes a Wall Street bank with a posse of masked gunmen. What's weird is that he's indifferent to the vault's stacks of bills. The hostage negotiator, played by Denzel Washington, studies the situation like a chess master and holds off making contact. When he does, the talk is not exactly feverish.
Owen is calm, and there are times when Denzel Washington is so casual he borders on goofy. For all the hop in Lee's technique, "The Inside Man" doesn't have much momentum. You won't be on the edge of your seat.
But I think it's worth the trade-off in an age in which most thrillers - and most Spike Lee "joints," as he calls them - whack you upside the head. "The Inside Man" is tricky and amusing and very pleasurable. The pace is set by Washington's ease and Owen's witty matter-of-factness. And even though Jodie Foster is more vivid when her characters are trying to hide their vulnerability, it's fun to see her play a woman with zero self-doubt.
For more typical Spike Lee fare, there's a new DVD box of his "joints" that documents both the thrilling and the irritating.
Remember his misogynistic interracial romance "Jungle Fever" with that bizarre floating traveling shot? Or the flashy but poisonously bitter "Mo' Better Blues"? The box does offer his most momentous work, "Do the Right Thing" - which, for all its preachiness, changed the course of New York City - and our culture - forever. I'm excited to see what Spike Lee makes next-and if he can combine his characteristic ferocity with the uncharacteristic self-control of "The Inside Man."
By David Edelstein