I’m going to tell you how the sausage is made. You know how sometimes you’ll see articles pop up online about some movie or television show in honor of its, like, 8th anniversary, and you’ll think “Who cares about the 8th anniversary?” Well, the answer is “no one.” It’s usually just an excuse for whoever wrote it to ramble on and on about something he or she likes and make it seem timely and relevant. But sometimes a movie will pop up on a streaming service and a writer will watch it three times in a week and start to think “Man, if I’m going to spend all this time watching this movie, I better write about it at some point” as a way to justify it all. And sometimes the movie came out twelve years and three months ago so there’s no way to tie it to an anniversary. And sometimes the writer will say, “Eh, screw it. Inside Man rules. I’m going to see if my editor will just let me write about it anyway.” And sometimes that writer is me.
The time has come to talk about Inside Man.
1. The plot of Inside Man, in short: Clive Owen and a small team of cohorts enter a Manhattan bank dressed as painters and promptly take hostages inside the building. Denzel Washington is called in to negotiate. A very nervous rich person played by Christopher Plummer calls a well-connected fixer played by Jodie Foster to help him with a sensitive issue regarding that particular bank. And then, the dance begins. What follows is a twisting and turning story that chronicles smart people trying to outsmart each other, and diamonds, and secret Nazis, and I honestly don’t know what else you need in a movie beyond any of the words I just typed. There are like three different points where you think the movie might end, only to have it veer to the side and present some new angle that explains something else, including the thing at the very end that explains the title is way more literal than you originally thought.
2. Inside Man is an A+ Denzel Washington movie. The rest of the cast is great and we’ll get to them in a minute but please make no mistake: This is a Denzel showcase. His character, Detective Frazier, shows up to the crime scene with a fedora and thin mustache and just takes over. Does he do the confident “All right, okay” Denzel thing, occasionally with a chuckle, whether he’s interrogating an old lady or talking to a brilliant bank robber? He does. Is he a loose cannon who at one point gets taken off the case for reckless shenanigans? He is. Is his character a government employee suspected of financial malfeasance, like in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Out of Time and Training Day and man, Denzel sure does play potentially crooked cops opposite Eva Mendes a fair amount. Not a complaint by any means, just an observation.
And he gets to go Full Denzel in so many scenes. He and Clive Owen chat about marriage for a while when he gets to go into the bank to check on the hostages. He and Jodie Foster go toe-to-toe two separate times, once when she tells him what’s happening is above his pay grade and he replies “So raise my pay grade,” and once when he calls her out for stonewalling him. It’s awesome. He also does this thing near the end of the movie where he starts a line, coughs loudly, and then just continues the line. I always liked that. Because either Denzel made a conscious choice that his character would cough in the middle of a sentence or he coughed naturally and was just like “I can work with this.” I can’t decide which one I like more.
3. So the question is, then, is this a bank robbery?
Correct. It’s not a bank robbery. This is our first big twist and it comes at almost the exact midpoint of the movie. Clive Owen and his team are not after the bank’s cash or the belongings of any of its customers. They are after the possessions of one man, Arthur Case (Plummer), the bank’s chairman, who, surprise, has a secret safety deposit box that, surprise, is filled with diamonds he acquired from Holocaust victims because, surprise, he had made his fortune working with the Nazis in World War II. That’s why he calls in Jodie Foster, not to help settle a hostage situation at his bank, but to keep this whole Secret Nazi Billionaire business out of the press. Great guy.
But… wouldn’t that still make it a bank robbery? Aren’t they robbing things from a bank, even if they’re targeting one evil person? No. I mean, yes, but no. This is a heist, not a bank robbery. The two are different. Bank robberies involve shooting guns in the air and smashing things and getting in and out as fast as possible. Heists involve elaborate plans and priceless jewels and brilliant criminals. This is a heist that pretends to be a bank robbery and once Denzel figures that out things start getting really fun.
4. Spike Lee directed Inside Man. It’s one of those things that doesn’t jump right out at you if you’re not looking for it, but once you figure it out you’re like “Oh, yeah. That makes sense.” There are a few little Spike Lee flourishes, like the thing where Denzel realizes something important and then glides through the shot perfectly still while the world moves all around him, like he’s on a conveyor belt. There’s a little kid who plays video games throughout the movie and explains that he wasn’t scared during the bank robbery because, to quote him exactly, “I’m from Brooklyn.” And so on. Mostly, what this means is there’s a confident, experienced filmmaker behind the camera, which is important for a movie with this many moving parts. A few times during the movie, Lee switches between shaky handheld cameras outside on the street and smooth gliding cameras inside the bank with Clive Owen and the crew, and it drives home just how much the criminals are in control, especially at the beginning. Again, Inside Man rules.