One of Spike Lee's favourite American films is the classic Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Sidney Lumet's sizzling bank heist movie that helped put actor Al Pacino on the map and to define American cinema of the 1970s. It was a pot-boiler of an action movie, a blistering character piece with a killer twist no one saw coming. Now Lee has a go at making his own version, a contemporary bank heist film also set in New York, with plenty of cops, robbers and secrets buried in the screenplay. It is his 20th dramatic feature in a career filled with as many hits and misses. Whether or not they all work at the box office (or as films), and whether or not you agree with his often didactic political viewpoint, the one thing that uniformly unites all of Lee's films is his cinematically ambitious and intelligent approach to filmmaking. Inside Man is no exception, and as with most of his movies, it features an impressive cast of accomplished actors in roles both big and small. Clive Owen (Croupier, King Arthur) plays Dalton Russell, a bank robber on a mission of revenge and retribution. Swiftly he and his precision crew take over a Lower Manhattan bank, much to the alarm of it's chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), a man with a secret hidden in the vaults. He recruits society spin-doctor Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to protect his interests while detectives Frazier and Mitchell are assigned to dispose of the case (Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofer), with the reluctant help of police captain Darius (Willem Dafoe). They all soon realise that cash is not the prime objective of this case, and the enigmatic Dalton Russell has more than getting rich quick on his mind. Inside Man is one of Lee's interesting movie failures. Using the crime genre as a cover he attempts to have one of his usual conversations about bigotry, this time branching out beyond the more localised racism towards African-Americans endemic to the US, to look at the far-reaching ramifications of Nazi-occupied Europe on contemporary white America. It is an interesting subtext to what for all intents and purposes seems to be a straightforward crime thriller, but it flounders and becomes a failed exercise by the end. Lee doesn't balance the competing elements very convincingly, and at times you find yourself wondering just what kind of movie it is you're actually watching. And although initially placed on opposite sides of the police barrier, Washington and Owen's characters are eventually supposed to become symmetrical counterparts, merging on similar missions, as two characters at odds with their environment trying to play corrupt systems from the inside while keeping their ethics in tact. In Michael Mann's comparable heist movie Heat (1995), this 'good guy versus bad guy' flip dynamic worked superbly, the fine line that disappeared between cop and villain creating a brilliant dramatic tension between the two main players (Pacino and De Niro). Lee clearly was trying to create a similar situation with his two heavyweight actors Owen and Washington, but it doesn't work. They end up kind of cancelling each other out, the supposed bonds between the two characters and their motivations far too tenuous to be convincing. Theirs was a screen marriage that didn't work and ultimately it let the film down. Inside Man does become a confusing and frustrating exercise. It does have flair, solid performances and some intense scenes. It is a watchable film but the message that Lee asks us to commit to becomes lost to good intentions, and a far more unsatisfying thriller than it should have been.
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