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Inside the Vault: Spike Lee’s New Heist Film Steals the Show

Tae Andrews | Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Pair two industry veterans with impressive portfolios and savvy to match, then throw in an up-and-comer for good measure, and the result is more than a sound investment – it’s a blockbuster. Actor Denzel Washington reunites with director Spike Lee for their fourth collaboration in “Inside Man,” a heist film in which Washington plays Detective Keith Frazier, a cop trying to catch up with a bank robber (Clive Owen) who always seems to be one step ahead.

As one of the finest actors of his generation, it’s no coincidence that Washington’s surname is identical to that of George Washington, the founding father whose visage is printed on the dollar bill – Denzel is money, plain and simple. Washington’s currency as an actor is his versatility, as his talents include recent turns as an embattled football coach in 2000’s “Remember the Titans,” a blue-collar father in 2002 “John Q,” and a bodyguard with a tortured soul in 2004’s “Man on Fire.” In addition, his atypical heel performance as a hard-nosed corrupt cop in “Training Day” earned him an Academy Award in 2003.

Prior to “Inside Man,” Washington’s collaborations with director Spike Lee were nothing short of excellent. After teaming up for “Mo Better Blues” in 1990, the pair met up again two years later in “Malcolm X.” Washington put in one of the best performances of his career as the titular and incendiary civil rights leader. In 1998, Washington starred opposite NBA star Ray Allen as an incarcerated felon in “He Got Game.”

Taken separately, Lee and Washington are more than capable of cornering the market, but when placed together, the duo is the most powerful union since American Online merged with Time Warner. Put simply, the Spike-Denzel combination is money in the bank, which provides for an interesting scenario when actor Clive Owen is added to the mix, precisely because he is a bank robber trying to make off with money from a bank.

In “Inside Man,” Owen seems to have taken a cue from rapper Juicy J of the Oscar-winning hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia when J raps, “I ain’t Denzel but I know I’m a star.” As one of the best emerging actors in Hollywood, Owen holds his own opposite Washington as Dalton Russell, a criminal mastermind who has seemingly crafted the perfect crime.

Owen’s stock has risen sharply as of late. After developing a cult following in a series of short films produced by auto manufacturer BMW in 2001, Owen made his debut as a lethal assassin opposite Matt Damon in “The Bourne Identity” in 2002. He followed “Bourne” with “King Arthur” in 2004, and “Closer” later that year. Owen then played the character Dwight in “Sin City” in 2005, a ladies’ man who takes on a corrupt cop.

Throughout all of his roles, Owen belies his proper British accent by playing characters who are a walk on the wild side- he’s English, but with enough rogue in him to let viewers know that he’s no gentleman. In “Inside Man,” Owen is no different – he is menacing under his dark sunglasses and painter’s attire. As a smooth customer with insider information on the business of knocking over seemingly impregnable banks, he stars as an intellectual criminal mastermind.

At the beginning of the film, Owen stares directly into the camera with that penetrating gaze of his and declares, with perfect conviction, that he will execute the perfect crime, a heist so flawless that he will be able to simply waltz out of the bank’s front doors when he’s “good and ready.”

Herein lies the fun of the heist genre – unlike mystery or “whodunit” films, the caper film eschews the rest of the “who/what/when/where/why” spectrum in favor of the “how.” During the film’s cat-and-mouse game of cops and robbers, the true fun lies in seeing if Owen can elude Washington and deliver on his promise to execute the perfect crime. Unlike good magicians, the quality heist film always reveals its secrets. Hopefully, it will impress the audience with its clever plot twists as well.

Jodie Foster and Willem Dafoe also put in quality performances during “Inside Man.” Dafoe is such a talented actor that he could easily portray his character, Police Captain John Darius, in his sleep, but it is Foster who really breaks the mold here. Portraying an ice queen and power broker. Foster is extremely convincing as Madelin White, a woman who is willing to use anything, including a pair of seemingly endless legs, accentuated by power heels, to get what she wants. Having sold her soul to the devil a long time ago, White brings a ruthless and intelligent player to the table.

As clever as it is slick, “Inside Man” is a fun movie to watch and an entertaining example of the burgeoning heist genre. Here’s some insider information: for the relatively low price of $6.00 (with student ID) at the local Cinemark, Spike Lee’s latest film,”Inside Man” is a strong investment.