friday night movie club

Inside Man Still Absolutely Rules

denzel washington spike lee
Denzel, baby! Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from staff writer Hunter Harris, who will begin her screening of Inside Man on June 12 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead at next week’s movie here.

The only thing I feel up to watching these days, other than Jonathan Glazer’s Birth — which, truly, my specific breed of brain worms adore — is a crime drama. I want a trio of goons holding a subway train hostage. I want Robert De Niro making a U-turn at the last second to settle a score. I want a foursome of women from Los Angeles setting it off. The formula at play in these genre movies settles my anxious quarantine brain: There is an objective, a hero, a villain. More than anything, I want stakes that are clearly defined. I’ve watched and rewatched a bunch of them over the past three months, from smoky Columbia noirs to Erin Brockovich (which is its own kind of push-up-bra heist). The one I come back to, time and again, is Inside Man. Spike Lee’s highest-grossing movie is still an engaging, engrossing caper.

Inside Man is one sleight of hand after another: The mysterious Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) is in prison when we meet him, and he’s blithely telling the audience what he’s about to do. It’s not a warning; it’s a promise: “Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself,” he says. (The restraint here! It sets all my synapses on fire, the way his certainty veers just shy of smugness.) Russell is the crook; four minutes later we meet Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), the cop. Money missing from a previous bust has Frazier worried for his job, and when he and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are assigned a robbery at the downtown Manhattan Trust Bank, it seems like a big enough case to save his neck.

As far as bank robberies go, Russell’s strategy isn’t necessarily something we haven’t already seen in a pricey studio movie before. There are jumpsuits and dark sunglasses and a menacing vault. But there are also riddles and hilariously deployed rap songs, an irritated elderly woman, an arrogant 20-something hostage. It’s the way Spike Lee builds the tension that works best, giving you Dog Day Afternoon’s desperation with Ocean’s Eleven’s gloss — and adds his own ideas about this city. Race and money (or the lack of it) can sway anything in this New York. A white cop (Willem Dafoe) bucks when he has to respect Frazier’s authority. Officers rush to tackle bank hostage Waris Ahluwalia for no reason other than that he’s wearing a turban. A chatty woman trades information, but only if her parking tickets are handled. Jodie Foster seems to descend out of nowhere, a fixer sent in by the bank’s super-wealthy owner to make sure his secret assets stay hidden. This is New York as only Spike Lee can film it: loud, frustrated, funny. The slickness of this movie works in its favor; Lee’s palette is muted, but his ideas are just as urgent. All of his best impulses (and one of his worst, in a scene about the violence of video games that still feels like an unnecessarily dadish lecture) are on display.

I cannot stress enough how much this movie absolutely rules. It’s slyer than a typical cat-and-mouse story, where one man nips at another’s heels. It’s more complicated than a pair of fraternal twins on different sides of the law. Russell and Frazier enter into a series of mind games that’s a pleasure to watch unfurl: Who’s playing whom? Who’ll give up first? They’re equals, intellectually, but also opposites. I want Russell’s smugness to give out just as much as I want Frazier’s desperation to give in. More than once, it’s not even clear who was in on the heist — or what exactly it is they’re stealing — only that the bad guys are winning. It feels cathartic to watch right now, as we’re toppling racist power structures and holding opportunistic billionaires’ loafers to the flame.

To be clear, the edict is still to abolish the police. But in the meantime, won’t you watch Inside Man with me?

Inside Man is available to stream with a subscription to Netflix and is available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.

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Inside Man Still Absolutely Rules