One of the most popular genres in film has always been the thriller. A good taut story can keep us on the very edge of our seats; each scene leaving the audience wanting for more. It is an extremely difficult genre for a director to master, few if any can hope to achieve the success that was held by Alfred Hitchcock but with ĎInside Maní Spike Lee makes his mark. The film opens with a monologue given by the head bank robber Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). It is a simple shot but it sets the audience up for a few things they will encounter in the film. Everything is not what it appears; you may not be able to believe your own eyes. We are also given a clue that the film will not be presented in chronological order so we better pay careful attention. The robbery is a masterpiece of near military precision. Russell and his gang enter a Manhattan bank one morning and immediate take command. Before the first gun is drawn they use infrared flashlights to disable the security cameras. Rounding up all the bank employees and customers they take away all cell phones and keys. They then force the hostages to put on the same coveralls and masks as worn but they thieves, a ploy to confuse the police and ensure a sniper will not take a hasty shot. The police soon arrive at the scene and the command is taken by police hostage negotiator Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington). Every tactic of the police is anticipated by the robbers. When food is requested they know that the pizza boxes would be bugged and they play a message stored on an iPod to send the police on a red herring chase. One of the demands is for a get away airplane, a standard movie plot device but used here in a novel fashion. While the police are reluctant to give in to any such demands the bank founder and president, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) is overly anxious to give them what they want. Case is desperate to gain control of the situation and engages the services of Madeline White (Jodie Foster) a mysterious power broker. White is an emotionally detached woman feared in most circles. She is able to just walk in on the mayor with absolutely no notice and be received by a very nervous politician. The source of Caseís concern is a particular safety deposit box whose contents must either be secured or destroyed. Even though every effort is made to keep Detective Frazier out of the loop he is a sharp man and begins to piece some of the events together. While it is usually the police that try to stall a hostage situation here Russell is doing everything possible to delay. Soon the main characters are headed for a clash that will finally reveal the hidden agenda each one has.
The film builds suspense slowly with great attention to detail. Each frame seems to hold some hidden clue. Spike Lee has never been known as a genre director. His previous works where theme oriented instead of driven by the rules of a specific genre. Here he shows that despite some box office disappointments he remains one of the great American directors. One hall mark of Leeís works remains here, New York City is far more than a setting it becomes part of the cast. While Lee was not born here in New York he loves he city and uses every opportunity to show it off to the audience. He employs the city to show the interaction of the social strata of American society. There are people like White that have power and influence but also regular working people that just want to get by. He also gives credit to a film that most will immediately use for comparison, Sidney Lumetís Dog Day Afternoon. There is even an overt piece of dialogue that references the film by name. Creating a taut thriller is difficult of any director but Lee rises to the challenge. Many thrillers use too many plot devices and tend to become overly complicated resulting in the audience loosing focus and interest. Here we the audience are a lot more fortunate. Lee is able to take an extremely complicated series of story lines and weave them together in a tapestry that is a joy to watch. This is not a film to watch in the background, every little detail adds to the ultimate resolution. Even though the time line of the film jumps around Lee never uses the narrative of the story. He pulls in the audience never letting go until the final credits begin to roll. At first the film appears to be a typical bank heist but slowly the more devious nature of the caper becomes evident. Lee does not underestimate his audience. He doesnít make it easy to put together the clues. Instead he respects the viewers giving us credit that we can be attentive enough and intelligent enough to figure out what is really going on. Lately a lot of so called thrillers have become too overt. Directors force the plot on the audience leaving nothing to their imagination. It is great to see that Mr. Lee has taken us back to the day when a brain is actually required to fully enjoy the film.
Even the best director cannot bring in a true thriller without the right cast. Fortunately for the audience Lee has the status in cinema circles to hire the best actors around. This is his fourth film with Denzel Washington and the familiarity between the two shows here in the performance. Washington is one of the best actors around and here he is given a role that he can really sink his teeth into. Washington can invoke more emotional impact with a glance or movement of his hand than most actors can with the best written dialogue. I canít say that he gives a portrayal of the detective; it is more like Washington put on the persona of the man. His presentation here is his usual excellence. Clive Owen has become the go to actor for an every man character that is always ready for action. Here he is able to get the audience to believe that he is no ordinary crook but actually an extremely intelligent man that just happens to tread the other side of the law. This is one of the best roles that Jodie Foster has had in years. She is just about perfect as the aloof Ms. White. She plays her character as a woman that has not only done well in a manís world she has become a force beyond any gender identification. She is power incarnate and uses her position to intimidate others with a glance. Even the ancillary roles are filled by incredible actors. One of my favorite actors, Willem Dafoe, has a rather meaty part as an emergency services captain. No matter how large or small his roles are Defoe never gives anything short of his best.
Universal has hit it out of the park with the DVD release of this film. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is close to reference quality. The color balance is exceptional. While not exactly vibrant that colors do capture the City of New York perfectly. The contrast is far better than most films Iíve seen recently. There is an excellent demarcation between light and dark that adds to the gritty realism of the work. The Dolby 5.1 audio is mastered without flaw. The rear speakers constantly provide a true to life ambiance that puts you right in the action. The sub woofer is used with discretion never overpowering the dialogue. The audio commentary track provided by Spike Lee is practically a mini course in making a thriller. He details the production problems that had to be overcome and gives some insight into the process he used to make the film. There is, of course, a making of featurette and a few deleted scenes to round things out. This is a film that is well worth adding to your collection.