Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) enters a bank disguised as a painter. With special flashlights, he is able to take out the security cameras. He then fires a few rounds from his firearm to frighten the people in the bank.
Russell is not alone. There are four armed robbers in total. They ask everyone to lie down on the ground and to not move; a familiar request heard in any movie involving a public robbery.
The robbers pointlessly toss smoke bombs in the bank. The smoke finds its way outside the main doors and a street cop realizes that something is definitely wrong. He informs the police. The clever Detective, Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), is assigned to investigate the situation, and his intention is clear: free each and every captive. But he soon notices that the thieves are stalling and none of the officers seem to understand why. “You’ve seen Dog Day Afternoon. Quit stalling,” says Frazier to Russell.
The robbers themselves, led by Clive Owen, are no amateurs. They are quick to bolt the doors and force the hostages to strip down do their undergarments. Each hostage wears a jumpsuit, a mask, and a pair of black sunglasses so that police can’t distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Smart, but why did the thieves decide to raid that particular bank? What can they possibly hope to steal from its vault other than a ton of money?
Inside Man is an ordinary thriller with an unfulfilling payoff. We are preordained to identify with Washington’s character, as we too want to understand the robbers’ motive. Thrillers never let viewers simply be viewers. Thrillers transform viewers into investigators as you constantly try to guess the outcome, the murderer, or the reason for the killing or robbery. As a result, your mind may develop a stronger outcome than the one offered here.
Spike Lee directs the film with a handful of racial remarks in the script and inventive camerawork. Jodi Foster has a role in the film as Madeleine Smith, but her part seems short. Clive Owen spends three quarters of the film wearing a mask, and Christopher Plummer is supposed to be playing a ninety year old man. But he doesn’t look ninety, and his role also seems trimmed down. The main attraction is Denzel Washington, who turns in a credible performance as a steadfast cop. Most of the key characters are underdeveloped and we don’t care much about them or what happens to them. We know where the detective comes from but barely learn anything about the thieves or Madeleine.
Considered to be Lee’s most commercial endeavor, Inside Man uses all the tricks in the book to assemble an inspiring thriller. The film’s real winning moments are the one-on-one confrontations between Frazier and Russell.
There is a scene in which Frazier enters the bank to “check up” on the hostages. “Money can’t buy you love,” says Russell.
Frazier sarcastically replies, “Why thank you Mr. Bank Robber.” The dialogue is not inventive but the delivery is.
While the actors constantly lift our attention away from the weak plot, we can’t help but speculate about the heist, the robbers, and their objective.
Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense. He didn’t just make suspenseful films. He told suspenseful stories. It was Hitchcock that said, “When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?, ‘ I say, ‘Your salary.'”
Inside Man has three important faces on the poster and we’re left to wonder if their motivation was anything but salary.