With Spike Lee’s temperamental Chi-Raq finally unleashed upon us, let us turn to Lee’s last unambiguously popular film, a work that has now largely been forgotten and lamented with cries of “selling out”.
It is tempting to claim that an auteur like Spike Lee is at his best when he is at his most personal. A true statement, but not a complete one. Spike Lee is at his best when he is at his most personal, he is at his worst when he is at his most personal, and he is at his most middling when he is at his most personal. In other words, all of his films are his most personal; even a threadbare indie like 2015’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, one of Spike’s most nonchalant, slackened films ever, is a quiet sting of an ode to one of Lee’s favorite forgotten filmmakers, Bill Gunn. Even Lee’s vampire film is about race, the divining rod of most of his best films, but like all of his films, it is not only about race. Lee is not only a protest-artist (although he is a great one), but an aesthetic maestro with a adoration for film history, a probing eye for gender relations and power dynamics of all varieties, and a fixation on place and space.
If Da Sweet Blood of Jesus found that a genre-hopping, Kickstarter-funded Lee couldn’t but fascinate, 2006’s Inside Man shows that a sellout Lee intrigues as well. Partially, this is because Lee who loves films and Lee who loves place are always at their most enticing when they lie in unison. Or, in other words, when Lee is dissecting not only New York, his favorite place, or a movie, but the New York movie, which he does in Inside Man, not really a thriller or a heist film but another ode to another director, and another film: Sidney Lumet and Dog Day Afternoon. Lee doesn’t hide this fact. He’s being humble here; he outright mentions the film within the middle passages of Inside Man.
But he doesn’t need to belabor the comparison. The thematic conceits are too similar not to notice. Bank robbers hold up a New York City bank and the crime becomes a plaything for anyone interested. For the police, its a challenge, and for head investigator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, one of Lee’s many muses), it provides indifferent vexation and a path to career advancement. For the bank itself, it is a chance to hide secrets, more a nuisance than a real threat. And for the public, Lee’s most focused object of study, it provides a transient and televised circus to glimpse until they move on with their lives. Inside Man is a film about people trying to hide themselves and people trying to reveal themselves, but it is primarily about the serrated hooks jaggedly tying the two together and providing just enough of a hole in between for everyone to get trapped in.
Lee provides fissures to the Dog Day formula, for sure. The focus on the police is one, and the seeming omnipotence of the robbers headed by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) is another. While Sonny and Sal in Dog Day were fickle, momentary outsiders trapped by a sweltering summer heat that pushed them over the edge, acting out the only outlet for social escape available to them, Dalton and co. are smooth sailing from the get-go. How they plan to rob the bank, precisely, is nominally the focus in Inside Man, but the film’s central questions lie elsewhere, as with Dog Day. That Inside Man is a thriller is taken as a given, but it is not necessarily a truth.
Oh, there’s certainly pep. The camerawork, for one, is inspired, with Matthew Libatique bolstering Lee’s usually vertiginous firebrand cinematography, buttressing Lee’s penchant for filmmaking that shouts and smacks whenever it can. There’s a bracing immediacy to Inside Man that is vintage Lee, a style that might signal a thriller. But the camerawork, pointedly and unexpectedly, also lends an everyday chill to the material stewed to a simmer, and not a boil. For most of the film, the camera actively – and intentionally, I suspect – distracts from the central nature of the crime, following characters through loopy sideways consultations and gallantly striding behind them as they journey to nearby diners for constant breaks. Hostages loom large over Inside Man, but there is little sense of danger. In a move that hints at Lee’s commentary on how humans, and especially the public, view crime, the robbery is almost a passionless theater for everyone involved.
So Lee is playing games with us from the beginning, teasing out a high stakes thriller and then daring us to remove the stakes. If Lee was a fan of Westerns – and given the Americana inherent to so many of his films, one would assume he has seen a few – his pick of the day might be Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. In that film, John Wayne and company were ostensibly surrounded by a murderer’s row of outside forces thirsting for fresh blood, but Hawks chose to un-knot the film with a delectable series of conversational vignettes, deliberately de-stressing the situation, uncorking the pressure when we expected a conflagration.
Following suit, Inside Man is a deliberately chill film, a stark and tricky contrast to Lee’s usual fire-and-brimstone filmmaking. Dog Day Afternoon is the second greatest film ever made about a hot summer’s day in the perennial carnival of New York City. Lee, perhaps cheekily, may know he already made the greatest such film: his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. Ever the cocksure contrarian, he begs the Dog Day Afternoon question and then runs, tonally, as far in the other direction as possible for a sleek, chic slice of almost Euro-cool that, if we didn’t know better, we might have appended Michael Mann’s or Jean-Pierre Melville’s name too.
It is perhaps necessarily the case that Inside Man feels messy and incomplete, but this is part of its fascination. Lee glances at race with minor tensions between the police and some of the hostages – who seem to be treated with more respect by the supposed criminals. But he then absolves himself from a full pursuit down that rabbit hole when he turns to gender in the form of Jodie Foster femme-fataleing all over the film with the clearest purpose and energy of all involved. Corporate greed circles the film like a vulture, but it never descends for the kill. The impulsive texture of the piece – the way it eschews crisp thrills for wandering enigmas and malleable tangents – is the film’s personality though, and in contrast to just about every other thriller on the marketplace that feels the need to pummel its audience into submission, Lee seems like the calm, cool master confidently swirling around us. He knows he has us in his talons, so why rush? It is an unfocused, moment-to-moment film for an unfocused, moment-to-moment city.