Spike Lee's "Inside Man" concerns a bank robbery. A most unusual bank robbery, in fact. The robbery is organized by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), who addresses the camera directly at the film's opening to give us the Who, What, When, Where, and vaguely the Why about the events we are about to see. The rest of the film presents the How (although many viewers will still be wondering Why? after the final credits roll). Dalton's elaborate heist begins as he and a couple of partners walk into a New York City bank dressed as painters, lock the doors and take the roughly 50 people inside hostage. The robbers change into gray coveralls and masks and then force the hostages to strip and put on identical disguises, effectively making sure that no one can be distinguished from the next person. Here's the catch—the supposed robbers spend a good amount of time moving the hostages from room to room, threatening to shoot them, and yelling at them, but they don't seem to be in any hurry to rob the place.
Once the police catch on to what is going on inside, which happens when a passerby fairly casually informs a passing cop that smoke seems to be coming from inside the bank, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is put on the case. Frazier has something of a shady past, having been implicated in the disappearance of a large sum of money, but with the chief detective away, he is allowed to take charge of the situation. Meanwhile, the bank's owner, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), contacts Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) because he fears that the robbers may find something in his safety deposit box that he would like to remain a secret. Madeleine's business (which in itself is largely done in secret) is not clearly revealed, although she apparently performs services for people in high places to keep them out of sticky situations...for a pretty price. Case wants her to negotiate with the robbers inside, and her considerable connections afford her the authority to simply walk into the bank, even as an entire police force is kept outside.
So we now have four central characters whose intentions are vague at best and a bank robbery that does not seem to be a robbery at all. To say that Spike Lee has a lot of 'splainin' to do is quite an understatement. It is difficult, if not downright impossible, to develop sympathy for or a rooting interest in any of these characters based on their own merits. It is only for the performances of the lead actors that we really become invested. Washington and Foster are especially slick and forceful, commanding our attention even if we don't really understand what they are thinking or doing. Their performances are magnetic, and while their characters may in fact be doing some rather underhanded things, we enjoy seeing them at work.
In spite of the constant confusion generated by the film's secrets and ambiguities, however, it remains consistently watchable as a mechanical exercise. While the events unfolding make little sense, they are presented with such energy that it is easy to become swept up in them. Multiple references are made throughout to Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). On the commentary track, Lee even makes it explicitly clear that he cast two actors from that film in very similar roles here. That is a high standard to set your film against, and while "Inside Man" certainly doesn't meet it, it has its own clever perks. The interplay between Dalton and Frazier throughout is fun to listen to, as is Frazier's dealings with Police Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe). Lee also plays with the movie's structure by inserting brief scenes of post-release hostage interrogations throughout.
The film is also nestled unmistakably within Lee's worldview with a diverse cast of characters of various races, ethnicities, and religions. The mixture of black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern characters paints a colorful picture of New York City, one that is deftly aware of American society post-9/11 and alternately celebrates that diversity and criticizes the prejudices that have intensified since 2001. That Lee brings in so many different voices throughout makes it somewhat disappointing that the film ultimately boils down to the familiar struggle of a single black man (Frazier) against the powerful, greedy, and obviously Republican white man (Case). At the very least, the film ends on a somewhat ambiguous note (surprise!) that still casts Frazier in a doubtful light, calling into question the entire notion of heroes and villains and demonstrating how a little of both may exist in everyone.
"Inside Man" debuts on Blu-ray in a very good transfer from Universal Home Video. Presented in 1080p high definition, the 2.35:1 widescreen transfer exhibits fine detail and sharpness throughout. There is some fine grain visible, but it is never distracting and gives the picture a good film-like appearance. Colors appear well-saturated throughout. Some scenes were shot with an intentionally blown-out look and muted colors, and they are faithfully rendered in this transfer. Overall, the image quality is clear, slick, and gorgeous to behold.
The audio is presented in a solid DTS 5.1 Master Audio track. Dialogue is clear throughout, and Terence Blanchard's score sounds great. The few action scenes benefit well from the multi-channel surround as the gunfire and chaotic noise are distributed to put you right in the middle of it. A surprising number of alternate languages are also available in DTS tracks and subtitles.
All of the bonus features on this disc are ported over from the previous DVD and HD-DVD editions, starting with an audio commentary by Spike Lee. In general, Lee is easy to listen to, although he leaves several gaps and often does not have much of great interest to say. He frequently narrates what is happening or reacts to it by laughing or even talking to the characters onscreen, but he occasionally tells a good behind-the-scenes story.
More than 20 minutes of deleted scenes are provided, but a good 17 minutes are spent on the film's hostages being interrogated by the police. Most of these scenes were adlibbed and are very interesting to watch, although it is entirely understandable why they could not be kept in the final film.
A 10-minute making-of feature comes next, boasting the standard enthusiastic praises and PR footage, including some video of the cast during a script read-through. Another 10-minute feature, "Number 4," presents a conversation between Lee and Denzel Washington on the four films they have made together. It's an easygoing feature, but once again, it just isn't really that informative or insightful.
The disc is BD-Live enabled and also allows viewers to save their favorite scenes for easy access.
It cannot be denied that "Inside Man" is an entertaining movie, but it is also confusing and at times frustratingly ambiguous. It's overlong, but the time passes quickly, and this should be especially appealing to fans of heist movies or Spike Lee. Universal's Blu-ray release presents the film in top quality, although the special features are a bit slight. But then, so is the movie.