New directors who hope to break into the very expensive business of making movies quickly understand that they need one thing the "calling card," a single, successful, completed film that demonstrates not only the talent a director can bring to the screen, but also his or her commercial viability. By nature, calling-card movies are low-budget, often well under $1 million, and win initial attention on the film-festival circuit, where studio scouts hunt for the next Sex, Lies and Videotape, Memento, or Napoleon Dynamite. The payoffs can't be underestimated, both in terms of box-office results, and for the high-profile projects that follow indie auteurs Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) currently find themselves at the helms of major Hollywood franchises. However, Spike Lee is one independent filmmaker who's resisted budget inflation his 1986 debut She's Gotta Have It cost less than $200,000, while his most high-profile work of the 1990s, Malcolm X (1992), cost an estimated $35 million. Since then, Lee's pictures have had modest budgets and returns, even while enjoying critical favor. The fact that he was willing to take one of Ron Howard's hand-me-downs surprised just about everyone in the industry, but when Howard left Inside Man in pre-production to shoot Cinderella Man, Lee told Howard's producing partner Brian Grazer that he was interested. He even shot the film in New York in under six weeks with an all-star cast for $45 million half of the eventual domestic gross. "A bargain," Lee says on the DVD commentary. "But next time, it's going to cost them."
Inside Man opens as master criminal Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), in solitary confinement, explains to the audience that he's committed the perfect crime which we are then invited to watch. Four well-organized bank robbers enter the Manhattan Trust Bank on Wall Street, dressed as painters, only to disable the camera system and then take 30 people hostage. Stripped and forced to wear dark blue jumpsuits and blinders, the hostages are methodically moved from room to room, while Dalton begins his negotiations with the NYPD. Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Det. Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are assigned the case, but Frazier is not having his best week under investigation for $140,000 missing from a drug bust, he's all but on paid leave until the hostage crisis puts him back on the street. While the tactical Emergency Services Unit sets up under Capt. John Darius (Willem Dafoe), Frazier decides to cool out the hostage-takers and wait for their demands. Meanwhile, Manhattan Trust Chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) realizes that the branch under siege contains a secret safe-deposit box, and he hires a well-connected negotiator, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), to use her political influence and negotiate separately for his valuables. However, as the negotiations drag out in a series of blind alleys and psychological ploys, Frazier soon realizes that what's going on isn't a bank robbery at all, but something far more inscrutable which he's determined to discover, even as pressure mounts for the tactical unit to end the standoff as quickly as possible.
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While a slick heist-thriller on its surface, Inside Man has the hallmarks of a Spike Lee picture even if it's the most radical creative departure of his career. The story takes place in an unmistakably post-9/11 New York City, where any large-scale criminal event immediately takes on the scope of a terrorist attack: While the hostages inside the bank wonder if the thieves have a greater, more sinister intent, the police find themselves paranoid of booby-traps and bombs, realizing that even a surrendered hostage could be rigged to explode. Criminal mastermind Dalton Russell and his crew are only too aware of the city's latent tension, broadcasting a phony tape in Albanian and making sure that one released hostage is a Sikh, whose turban will cause him to be mistaken as a Muslim by at least a few nervous cops. Lee's wide cast of extras also portray the ethnic diversity of New York, as well as the tensions and distrust that palpably exist in the city. As for the siege itself, first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz daringly takes on a difficult subject not because bank-hostage dramas are hard to write, but because they've been done before. However, his asynchronous narrative, weaving the post-crisis hostage interviews with the event itself, offers both critical foreshadowing as well as a few red herrings. Lee appears comfortable with his budget despite shooting quickly, he mixes Stedicam, verité, and crane cameras, uses high-contrast exposures in the interviews, and enhances a documentary flavor by encouraging a great deal of improvisation. And one can't fault the cast, with Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Plummer in key roles, while Denzel Washington's charismatic patter adds a light touch to the script's elaborate plotting. From beginning to end, Inside Man feels like a Denzel Washington star vehicle but only because the film's other star, Clive Owen, agreed to do most of his scenes with his face covered, while holding his own on screen with Denzel Washington. And that can't be easy.
Universal's DVD release of Inside Man features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 surround. Spike Lee offers a commentary track, wherein he reveals his homages to Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (he brought in two cast members for bit parts) and motifs borrowed from his own films. Also on hand are the featurettes "The Making of Inside Man" (10 min.) and "Number 4" (10 min.), wherein Lee and Washington reflect on their four films together. Five deleted scenes with a "play all" option round out the extras, which includes an extended look at the hostage interviews. Keep-case.