Back in the 1980s, Lawrence Tureaud -- a.k.a. Mr. T -- had a catch phrase that grew beyond the TV show "The A Team" and became an oft-repeated national motto. Not long after that, another TV star made a huge splash on the big screen with his own, far more colorful catch phrase in what many -- including yours truly -- think is one of the best and smartest action films ever made.
Yes, I pity the fool who tries to make a heist film as good as the original "Die Hard." Over the past nearly 20 years, many have stepped up to the plate to take their shot, and most have gone down swinging. Next up to bat is an unlikely pinch hitter -- Spike Lee -- who might not hit a perfect home run, but gets something between a double and triple with "Inside Man."
Like its predecessor, it features an intricately planned heist masterminded by a smooth talking and seemingly unflappable lead criminal, a troubled cop who tries to outwit him while dealing with unhappy superiors who just don't get it, all presented in a mix of drama, action and various instances of comic relief.
The particulars, of course, are different, and this one features a deeper and more accomplished cast than most. Yet, Lee -- who hasn't ever had a big hit (none of his films has ever made more than $50 million domestically in unadjusted dollars) but may just get one with this easy to watch offering -- isn't in the same league as John McTiernan in terms of delivering a picture like this. It's certainly not bad. In fact, it's better than most such films in that it seems to know both the requirements and limitations (and some might say goofiness) of the genre.
I'll have to admit that I enjoyed the ride and wasn't ever sure exactly where it was going to end up, but there are some bumps of varying sizes along the route. The biggest, in my opinion, is that Lee -- who's never shied away from addressing racial issues in his films -- makes the mistake of being far too heavy-handed in including all sorts of racism in this picture.
Yes, that behavior exists, especially post-911 and particularly in the melting pot of New York City. Yet, the director dips far too often into that well. Some will argue that's the point of the film, but it would be interesting to see how much of that was in Russell Gewirtz's original script compared to the amount added -- if any -- by Lee.
Thankfully, some of it's layered in comic relief, but the approach is nevertheless too obvious and far too easily identifies Lee as the man behind the curtain (as compared to most of the rest of the film that nicely remains anonymous in terms of any signature directorial style). That said, there are some directing choices that I could have done without, such as the now seemingly requisite handheld camera bit (for "realism") that long ago wore out its welcome.
Lee also employs a few trick shots and camera moves (most notably Denzel Washington shuffling along at high speed in a stop-motion looking effect shot by one of those chest cams looking back at him). Like the racism angle, we get the point, but similarly found such techniques distracting (which is never a good thing in any film, especially an otherwise straight shooting dramatic thriller) and not particularly necessary.
Which also holds true for the incredibly eclectic and ultimately annoying retro score by longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard. After the unusual but effective use of an Indian song (think Bollywood) to accompany the opening credits, the composer delivers a wide range of chords that seem inspired by similar genre films spanning a number of decades. While some work, others simply don't and draw undue attention to themselves as they clash with the material and thus temper -- sometimes greatly -- the momentum and/or emotion of the scene. That's unlike the score in "Die Hard" that fit perfectly and nearly became a character onto itself.
Speaking of products from another era, the film's big surprise -- which I won't give away but can say fuels the entire film -- feels like it's been lifted from one of those gritty, suspense dramas from the 1970s where older characters concealed some deep dark secrets from their past. Accordingly, it doesn't pack that much of a punch (or surprise -- I figured it out long before it was revealed), but it does fit into Lee's running thematic thrust.
The good thing is that Gewirtz's plot is engaging as it jumps back and forth between the heist and post-event interviews of the victims and possible suspects, and it will keep most guessing how things are going to turn out, even if the ending does go on far too long.
Another strong suit for the film are the performances. Denzel Washington is as good and engaging as ever and can do no wrong in the role, and while Clive Owen can't match up to Alan Rickman in that first "DH" film (who can?), he works quite well in the role of the slick and calculating mastermind.
Jodie Foster plays something akin to Harvey Keitel's cleaner character in "Pulp Fiction" in that her character is called in when things go bad and need fixing. Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor similarly help in offsetting some of the film's flaws that might not be huge, but are nagging, at least to yours truly.
Overall, I liked the film, but just wish the problems -- that also include some plot holes stemming from convenience-based plot necessities that don't stand up in hindsight -- didn't diminish this otherwise crackling dramatic thriller.