In Which Something is Rotten in New York
Spike Lee is one of the hardest directors to talk about. One reason is that he has such an expansive body of work, a filmography rapidly approaching four decades and multiple dozens of projects. Movies, documentaries, tv shows, stage productions, concert films, the works, any imaginable project that can be put in front of a camera Spike has done it. This voluminous body to go over makes it hard to also track a clear narrative to one of America’s most prolific and distinctive voices. Yes, you can tack two pretty clear all time greats to Lee (Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X) and everything else is almost completely up to the viewer. What to deem underrated, overrated, timely, dated, ham-fisted, or subtle can be considered for any of his movies. He’s had as many ups and down in a career then one can keep track of, and it is still going on right now.
So I can’t possibly consider everything about Lee’s career, but there is one thing that is important to consider when talking about Lee. Like many an American filmmaker who came to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century Lee sees his movies through the lens of other movies. Just like the fellow wunderkind of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, Spike likes to process ideas through the language of cinema and come up with his own spin. It’s why his style is so pronounced and his swings frequently so big, he never goes for realism when expressionism is just as viable an option. This attitude is what turns his directorial efforts into “Spike Lee Joints.”
Which brings us to 2006’s Inside Man, a flick at a fascinating juncture in Lee’s career. The 2000’s are not Lee’s high point as an artist, but it’s a decade where he made some of his more interesting and notable work. Bamboozled, which was met with staunch confusion at it’s release, has been rightly heralded as a biting piece of satire. 25th Hour was met with a bit of shrug, but has grown in reputation as maybe the only movie made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to get it right. Then there is She Hate Me, one of the worst things a major auteur has ever put together. So with confounded success and huge failure where does Lee go next.
The answer is to do a classic down the middle genre flick. Lee has never shied away from taking jobs that he didn’t develop from the ground up (Clockers was originally meant for Scorsese), but it’s interesting to see him be pulled to this. A script that had been floating around for a few years by a newcomer that just so happened to catch his fancy. The result is a movie that is built with a ton potboiler thrills, but accentuated, and brought to greatness by that Lee touch. Lots of style and a truly considered eye to what the city of New York was like in 2005.
Bank robber Dalton Russel (Clive Owen) has come up with the perfect heist. One day day at Wall Street bank he busts in takes hostages, and preps his escape. Bedraggled detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) and partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are sent to the seen to resolve the situation, hopefully with everyone coming out alive. Dalton has a plan though, to target the bank founder (Christopher Plummer) who conspired with the Nazis to make his fortune, and contest with a mysterious power broker (Jodie Foster) who works the city’s ruling class to make sure the status quo stays in place. In the end Russel is able to fool the authorities by hiding in a fake wall in the bank, swipe the diamonds of the owner, and lead Frazier on a trail to avenge the rotten actions of the past. All in a days work.
What’s immediately obvious from Lee is that he knows that the audience has seen a boatload of heist and crime films before. That the ground he is treading on is well worn territory. Thus he smartly turns this factor of the narrative into its lynchpin rather than making it a crutch. If you recall the article I wrote about Swordfish I noted how that film used movie references as a shield to block critique of its inanity. Here Lee uses similar touchstones to actually create a thematically rich narrative with a couple of fun twists and turns. Spike knows that you know the form of the heist film, that this setup is exactly like Dog Day Afternoon, and what he does with that is wrap a mystery around it.
Dalton is putting on a performance. He wants his robbery to be cinematic, he wants you to think of the classics while observing the crime scene, because it’s a smokescreen for his true intentions. People are drawn to tropes, archetypes, and clichés, and in a high tension situation it’s hard to get your head out of what is being presented. So Dalton plays Al Pacino for the police while digging into the background, and poking around at the rot behind the scenes. While everyone is watching Dog Day he’s trying to get to the heart of another Lumet classic, The Pawnbroker.
Because Inside Man is really a movie about how appearances can be deceiving, and how what something looks like is rarely what it truly is. The heist itself is the most obvious example. Yes Russell wanted money, but he also wanted to seek revenge against past atrocities. This concept gets drilled down through many layers in the story. Plummer’s character seems like a man who acts as upstanding citizen without knowledge of his past. Foster appears to be a regular consultant instead of a shadowy influencer. Heck even Frazier is at first presented as a crooked cop who might just be another functionary crushed under the lode of this work. All this even ties around to the title where a wall that looks like wall is not actually a wall.
This thematic framework beautifully wraps around to create a wonderful, frustrating, and beguiling portrait of what New York City is like. With so many people with such a variety of backgrounds it would be laughable to assume that what you see is what you get when it comes to the populace of the Big Apple. Indeed some of the movie’s most striking, biting, and funny moments come from this setup. When Vikram, a bank employee, is sent out to the police by the robber they immediately assume he’s a terrorist. Taking his turban and dark skin as a sign that the message he has is actually a bomb. Vikram is in fact not a terrorist, nor is he even Arab, and in fact his turban is worn because he is a practicing Sikh. But he is profiled, beaten, and then forced to cooperate with the cops, because that’s how America works.
There’s less politically motivated examples peppered throughout the film. Like when Frazier needs to decode a language spoken on tape and he eventually just plays the audio to a crowd to find out. And what do you know some schlubby construction worker is able to pick up that it’s Albanian because his ex-wife is Albanian and it was the only language his mother in-law knew. Only in New York City.
As such there is great catharsis to unveiling the truths that lurk in the shadows here. In such a way that Lee is able to construct a win for both the cops and the robbers in a manner that doesn’t feel completely cheap. Russel is able to pull off his elaborate scheme and enable law enforcement to begin to close in on his enemies. Frazier is able to sniff out that something’s amiss, and with a handoff from Russel begins to untangle the web of corruption and deceit that has infected the bank and local politics.
The conclusion might be a bit too cheery and over extended for my taste, but it serves as nice tonal balance to the tension and racial animosity that seeps through a good portion of the rest of the film. Lee is able to have his cake and eat it too while not losing the thematic track of the story he is telling. In a way that’s what makes Inside Man so delightful and engaging, it aptly shows the difficulties, prejudices, and hardships that would badger any person stuck in the infinitely complex system of New York life, but maybe there is a way to tunnel through it all.
Odds and Ends
- Along with Clive Owen, Ejiofor is another crossover from Children of Men.
- Speaks to Owen’s skill as an actor that he is quite compelling despite wearing a mask for a majority of his screen time.
- It’s 2005: Bank manager has Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” as his cell phone ringtone.
- It’s 2005 part 2: A kid character is playing a PSP with a hilariously terrible parody of GTA called Gangstas iz Genocide.
- If you were Clive Owen in 2006 it would appear that your career was only going to maintain some solid momentum and head up, but weirdly he almost immediately fizzles out. Can’t determine why exactly. Is it the Bond rumors that never came to be? Perhaps a few too many tossed off action movies like The International? But its hard to say, and now like all actors who made some waves in the 2000’s but never truly broke through he is starring on a streaming show.
Next week I’m off for the Holiday, but throw some suggestions to get the aeries back on track below.