Posted by: Paul | 10/16/2009

An “Inside” Problem

Ah, the heist film. It’s a Hollywood tradition that has brought us some enjoyable films. As “Ocean’s 11” proved a few years ago, it can still be fun. (No, I didn’t see the sequels. Even if I didn’t buy William Goldman‘s dictum that “all sequels are whores’ movies,” I’d like to think I learned something from suffering through the opening of “Lethal Weapon 4.”)

As with any well-worn genre, you need a twist. “Inside Man,” to its credit, comes up with one. Unfortunately, it’s squandered by a bad ending and a structural problem. (Spoilers ahead, though I probably don’t have to worry much; as usual, I’m watching a movie long after it’s out of the multiplexes.)

The story is pretty straightforward: Clive Owen plays the head bank robber; Denzel Washington, the lead police detective and hostage negotiator. Owen’s team comes barging in to a large New York City bank one day, takes hostages, issues demands, etc. Washington’s got a figure out how to deal with this guy.

Both actors do a good job. There’s a lot to like in certain parts of the film.

But it doesn’t hold up. First, the structural problem. As the story unfolds, director Spike Lee keeps editing in scenes of the detectives questioning the hostages after the robbery is over. These scenes may seem clever at first, but they create a problem: It drains much of the suspense from the film. When Owen shoves a gun in Washington’s face, we’re not worried. We also know which hostages will make it (all, in fact), so when the robbers are bellowing orders and making threats, we don’t feel much concern for any innocent bystanders.

We also know Owen is going to make it. He’s the first character seen in the film, addressing the camera directly — clearly safe and sound after the robbery is over.

And then there’s the ending. Here’s where the twist comes in. When the hostages exit the bank near the end of the film, Owen’s character is nowhere to be found. It turns out he and his men constructed a hiding place for him behind a wall in a storage room (where he was narrating from at the start of the film). After a few days, he breaks free and just walks out the front door with the only thing he was really interested in stealing: the contents of a specific safety-deposit box.

He gets into a car with his accomplices, and … they leave. That’s it. They don’t get caught. No justice is served. I’m sure this outcome would go over big in certain art houses and in Europe, but it left this viewer profoundly dissatisfied. We’ve rooted for two hours for Washington’s character to catch Owen. We’ve seen him confront apathy in his own ranks. We’ve cheered as he vows to, ahem, do the right thing. And what do we get? Nothing.

Worse, in one of those remarkable Hollywood coincidences, the filmmakers have Washington’s character bump into Owen just as he’s exiting the bank. Washington later finds a diamond in his pocket and realizes that Owen was the guy who bumped him and obviously slipped it to him. So he tracks him down and arrests him? No, he holds on to it so he can give it to his girlfriend as part of the engagement ring she’s been wanting.

This from a cop who, we’ve been shown, isn’t on the take. He’s a straight arrow. And because it’s Denzel Washington, we accept that.

Yes, somebody got robbed, all right. But it wasn’t anybody on screen.

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