Inside Man may be Spike Lee‘s most commercial joint but it’s far from lacking in the incisive social commentary always found in his films. It’s a different genre and a different mode of filmmaking, all in a part of New York City previously all but entirely unexplored by Lee, yet the film is one of the greatest insights into his versatility as a filmmaker and the strength of his voice in all of his projects. A heist film set in the Financial District, it explores issues of corruption on Wall Street, collusion with Nazis, and police brutality, but maintains the thrilling atmosphere found in all the best heist films and it’s easy to get caught up in it and have a fun time, especially when the final reveal comes along. Perhaps it’s fitting that this more mainstream effort would kick off an era of Lee experimenting more than before and receiving less recognition as a result (though I maintain that most of these films are fascinating insights into the artistry of a filmmaker who already established himself as a great and refused to cash in).
Where so many of the heist films that served as obvious inspirations – Rififi, The Killing, Big Deal on Madonna Street, and the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven, which had kicked off a new popularity for the genre (and was made by Steven Soderbergh, who himself was partly inspired by Lee to pursue independent filmmaking)- spend most of their time introducing the audience to a compelling cast of thieves as they plot the heist and see the fallout of it, Inside Man is stripped down to the basics. Borrowing much more from an earlier legendary New York director and his heist film Dog Day Afternoon, Inside Man almost entirely takes place during the heist and concerns itself more with compelling character interactions and an ongoing game of cat and mouse between the criminals and police, while eventually revealing that the motives go far beyond purely financial ones.
As there is no introduction to the heist or any life on the run seen after, we never really know the thieves in Inside Man, only their actions. This blank slate they provide allows the understanding the viewer has of the events to be much the same as it would be if the heist were occurring in real time, bringing a sort of admiration to their feats even if they seem overly brutal or immoral and sometimes prompt disgust, making the viewer really consider whether such acts could be justified. As with the recent hit show Money Heist, Inside Man centers on buying as much time as possible and keeping the police at bay, which leads to widespread newscasts covering the event from the perspective of the police, making the police officers here a natural choice to carry the story forward instead of the thieves. Yet, even as fear for the hostages is present and Denzel Washington provides an alluring frontman for the police, other cops are shown to be racists and their violent pasts are explored, making the thieves seem righteous. Lee also began an exploration he would further in BlacKkKlansman of the roles Black police officers have in fields populated by many who are racially prejudiced and where miscarriages of justice are not an anomaly but a feature of the system. Then, he places all of this against the corruption of Wall Street and shows Nazi collaborators being powerful figures, and exposes the whole American system as biased towards the powerful. Still, for all the anger Inside Man prompts at the backwards way everything is run, it’s immensely thrilling as it unfolds and each side seems to be gaining ground, both wrong in their actions but neither totally unjustified, and the reveal is as wonderful as any other heist film’s twist. No matter what genre he works in, Spike Lee has an incredible skill for using the streets to reflect his ideas and making something both entertaining and potent.
Note: There was really no place to put this in the above but I live next to the building that was being robbed in this film and it’s an apartment building (that I considered moving into) and not a bank. It’s a mildly frustrating look behind the movie magic I thought had to be mentioned.