Conspiracy thrillers have a large hill to climb. Bank heist films have a large hill to climb. Spy thrillers have a large hill to climb. Combining the three can make for an interesting story if done correctly. Inside Man ended up on a list of top films that caught my eye, and I immediately turned it off before the ending was given away because I had never heard it, let alone seen it. It was one of those rare moments for me where I could go into a film well over a decade old with absolutely no knowledge of the storyline. I was about to see a film with fresh eyes for the first time in a long while, and my interest was piqued. Every lead was somebody I knew of and had a back catalog of films that I enjoy watching, so there was very little concern that I was going to dislike their individual performances. Directed by Spike Lee, I was well aware that social commentary would be woven into the story seamlessly, providing the kind of thematic undercurrent that might be as obvious as a hammer on glass today.
Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, the lead bank robber who, despite his career choice, manages to maintain a charming visage throughout the film. The film opens with him essentially gloating at having gotten away with the robbery in a video message before the film jumps back in time to explain itself. The Manhattan Trust Bank (no banks were harmed in the production of this film) is the primary setting for most of the film, where Dalton and his band of merry thieves (primarily shown are Kim Director, playing Stevie, James Ransone as Steve-O, and Carlos Andrés Gómez as Steve. Of course, these are only their code names, as their real names play into the conspiracy in order to aid them in their eventual escape.
On the other side of the robbery are the police, with Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Keith Frazier and Bill Mitchell, respectively – two black police detectives in New York City. Detective Frazier is currently on thin ice with the department, being suspected of having embezzled money from a recent crime scene, is handed the robbery as a chance to prove to the rest of the force that he has nothing to worry about by his boss, Captain Coughlin (played by Peter Gerety). He is innocent, after all. Detective Mitchell is presented as his friend and confidant. Willem Dafoe plays Captain John Darius, the man who is ostensibly in charge of securing the scene and ensuring that the robbery is brought to a swift and definitive end. As such, he has a mostly adversarial relationship with Detectives Frazier and Mitchell. Their job is to negotiate, and Darius’ job is to act. Even though they’re all on the same side.
The robbers walk into the bank with the door literally held open for them and proceed to incapacitate the guards, the customers, and the employees in a handful of minutes. In what amounts to hilarious happenstance, a random police sergeant is seemingly on his way to his precinct when this is all starting to go down, this is Victor Colicchio as Sergeant Collins. Walking by, he’s informed by a passing pedestrian that there is smoke coming out of the bank – which is already in the process of being held, hostage. Of course, they always knew that the police would be on to them – even without the aid of the manager, who tried to keep his phone and ended up beaten for his efforts.
Finally, there is one other group of characters involved in this story – tying in the criminal element with the police element is always the political element. Christopher Plummer plays the owner of the bank, Arthur Case, who has something stored in his bank that he would rather the rest of the world not know about. Jodie Foster plays Madeline White, a fixer who deals with these kinds of situations all of the time – and has a phenomenal success rate, which is why she is briefly stunned when her assistant informs her that Arthur Case is on the line. Not his assistant, but the man himself. Jodie Foster, as always, commands the screen when she is in view, ensuring that she is a power player with cards up her sleeves – even when it seems like the chips are down and she is on the outside looking in. I’ll always double down on Foster. The final member of this core group of characters is the Mayor of New York himself, played by Peter Kybart, who owes Ms. White something that simply getting her involved in this mess of a bank robbery will clear his debt to her. He eagerly complies, despite the danger that comes from putting one’s fingers on the scales.
As mentioned earlier, conspiracy thrillers are not always the easiest stories to tell. First off, the conspiracy has to be compelling. Otherwise, the rest of the story elements fall apart. For Inside Man, you have the true reasons surrounding the heist in the first place. Something is clearly going on in the background, as the mayor and the owner of the bank have prominent roles and actively insert themselves into the investigation at hand. Obviously, in real life, this would be the case, though their involvement would be vague and unknown to us if the media were covering the robbery like they are in this film. Details surrounding police investigations are kept close to the vest, after all. But in films, especially those centered on mysteries and conspiracies, we get an inside look at all of the action, cut in such a way that it won’t make sense until the end explains it all to us. Great conspiracy films have all of the information readily available, but attention is not called to it. What the “Steves” do under the direction of Dalton are all meaningful, but their true importance is not clear until the end. In my opinion, Inside Man effortlessly nails the conspiracy angle of their story.
Who doesn’t love a good heist film? From the Ocean’s film series, Reindeer Games, The Italian Job, the latter films in the Fast franchise, and even the more recent Army of the Dead, the heist is a genre of film we can all get behind. That’s usually because the characters behind it are likable or, at the very least enjoyable to watch. It’s a kind of escapism we can relax and enjoy because (for most of us) we would never dream of robbing a bank, regardless of circumstance. When we hear about them on the news, we roll our eyes at how stupid the people involved had to have been. In movies, this is not the case. We root for their success – or at the very least, their survival. We can enjoy the dissonance between a fictional robbery and a real one. We can enjoy it more when the motive is noble rather than exploitative. The central mystery of Inside Man is why the robbery is happening.
At first glance, this isn’t obviously a spy film, but it has some of the several elements of a spy thriller. The robbers took time and care to research their subject and prepare their plan in order to successfully get away. Both of those are in line with heist and conspiracy genre films, but they are also critical elements of the spy genre (look no further than the Mission Impossible franchise, which has successfully combined these same three genres for decades). It’s Madeline White’s presence that adds an air of a spy thriller to it all, combined with Dalton’s careful interactions with her versus Frazier’s near antagonistic interactions with her, she maintains her unflappable cool. It’s not until the end that she shows any true anger at the truth of the situation that she was roped into – still managing to depart on top with him as another reference for her business. It’s not a straight spy thriller, but it doesn’t have to be.
The supporting cast includes the likes of Ken Leung, one of the hostages, and Cassandra Freeman as Officer Sylvia, who is also Detective Frazier’s girlfriend whom he talks to on the phone throughout the film. Other hostages are played by Samantha Ivers, whose bosom plays a critical role in obfuscating the identity of the only woman on Dalton’s team, and Marcia Jean Kurtz – an older woman who is forced to strip at gunpoint after initially refusing to do so like the other hostages. Waris Ahluwalia as Vikram Walia, a Sikh who is a banker and is treated about as well as one could expect in a film set in New York City in a post 9/11 world, and Peter Frechette as Peter Hammond, the aforementioned bank employee who tried and failed to hide his phone from the robbers. Lastly, are the father and son pair – Ed Nipede Blunt plays Ray Robinson, and Amir Ali Said plays his eight-year-old son Brian, who awkwardly tries to hand over his portable gaming console when the robbers demand all of the phones from their hostages (they let him keep it). It is with these characters (sans Sylvia) whom the robbers use in order to confuse the police, giving them a higher chance of successfully escaping by the end of the movie.
As is typical of bank robberies in film, the police attempt to communicate with the robbers throughout the film. All of their efforts are textbook, and you should not be surprised in the least that Dalton and his team have studied up. Whether the police are bugging pizza or stalling for time, Dalton and his crew are prepared for it. By the time Keith Frazier and Dalton Russell share a scene in person together (allowing the police to see that they aren’t abusing their hostages while awaiting their escape route), you have a feel for who they are as people and as characters. They each think the same, which makes the end of that particular interaction far more painful to watch. They think they know each other, only to prove to one another that they really, really don’t.
The varying relationships between the characters run the gamut – and change over the course of the movie. Even those characters who don’t seem to change, such as Madeline White and Dalton Russell, reveal new layers of their characters that tie into how they were presented at first. What appeared one way at first is revealed to be something else entirely – much like the many layers of their heist. That is one of the best assets for Inside Man, its incredible, deeply layered storyline calls for more than one viewing.
By the end of the film, your jaw may need to be lifted back into place. But aren’t those the best kinds of films?