I’m going to tell you how the sausage is made. You know how sometimes you’ll see articles pop up online about some movie or television show in honor of its, like, 8th anniversary, and you’ll think “Who cares about the 8th anniversary?” Well, the answer is “no one.” It’s usually just an excuse for whoever wrote it to ramble on and on about something he or she likes and make it seem timely and relevant. But sometimes a movie will pop up on a streaming service and a writer will watch it three times in a week and start to think “Man, if I’m going to spend all this time watching this movie, I better write about it at some point” as a way to justify it all. And sometimes the movie came out twelve years and three months ago so there’s no way to tie it to an anniversary. And sometimes the writer will say, “Eh, screw it. Inside Man rules. I’m going to see if my editor will just let me write about it anyway.” And sometimes that writer is me.
The time has come to talk about Inside Man.
1. The plot of Inside Man, in short: Clive Owen and a small team of cohorts enter a Manhattan bank dressed as painters and promptly take hostages inside the building. Denzel Washington is called in to negotiate. A very nervous rich person played by Christopher Plummer calls a well-connected fixer played by Jodie Foster to help him with a sensitive issue regarding that particular bank. And then, the dance begins. What follows is a twisting and turning story that chronicles smart people trying to outsmart each other, and diamonds, and secret Nazis, and I honestly don’t know what else you need in a movie beyond any of the words I just typed. There are like three different points where you think the movie might end, only to have it veer to the side and present some new angle that explains something else, including the thing at the very end that explains the title is way more literal than you originally thought.
2. Inside Man is an A+ Denzel Washington movie. The rest of the cast is great and we’ll get to them in a minute but please make no mistake: This is a Denzel showcase. His character, Detective Frazier, shows up to the crime scene with a fedora and thin mustache and just takes over. Does he do the confident “All right, okay” Denzel thing, occasionally with a chuckle, whether he’s interrogating an old lady or talking to a brilliant bank robber? He does. Is he a loose cannon who at one point gets taken off the case for reckless shenanigans? He is. Is his character a government employee suspected of financial malfeasance, like in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Out of Time and Training Day and man, Denzel sure does play potentially crooked cops opposite Eva Mendes a fair amount. Not a complaint by any means, just an observation.
And he gets to go Full Denzel in so many scenes. He and Clive Owen chat about marriage for a while when he gets to go into the bank to check on the hostages. He and Jodie Foster go toe-to-toe two separate times, once when she tells him what’s happening is above his pay grade and he replies “So raise my pay grade,” and once when he calls her out for stonewalling him. It’s awesome. He also does this thing near the end of the movie where he starts a line, coughs loudly, and then just continues the line. I always liked that. Because either Denzel made a conscious choice that his character would cough in the middle of a sentence or he coughed naturally and was just like “I can work with this.” I can’t decide which one I like more.
3. So the question is, then, is this a bank robbery?
Correct. It’s not a bank robbery. This is our first big twist and it comes at almost the exact midpoint of the movie. Clive Owen and his team are not after the bank’s cash or the belongings of any of its customers. They are after the possessions of one man, Arthur Case (Plummer), the bank’s chairman, who, surprise, has a secret safety deposit box that, surprise, is filled with diamonds he acquired from Holocaust victims because, surprise, he had made his fortune working with the Nazis in World War II. That’s why he calls in Jodie Foster, not to help settle a hostage situation at his bank, but to keep this whole Secret Nazi Billionaire business out of the press. Great guy.
But… wouldn’t that still make it a bank robbery? Aren’t they robbing things from a bank, even if they’re targeting one evil person? No. I mean, yes, but no. This is a heist, not a bank robbery. The two are different. Bank robberies involve shooting guns in the air and smashing things and getting in and out as fast as possible. Heists involve elaborate plans and priceless jewels and brilliant criminals. This is a heist that pretends to be a bank robbery and once Denzel figures that out things start getting really fun.
4. Spike Lee directed Inside Man. It’s one of those things that doesn’t jump right out at you if you’re not looking for it, but once you figure it out you’re like “Oh, yeah. That makes sense.” There are a few little Spike Lee flourishes, like the thing where Denzel realizes something important and then glides through the shot perfectly still while the world moves all around him, like he’s on a conveyor belt. There’s a little kid who plays video games throughout the movie and explains that he wasn’t scared during the bank robbery because, to quote him exactly, “I’m from Brooklyn.” And so on. Mostly, what this means is there’s a confident, experienced filmmaker behind the camera, which is important for a movie with this many moving parts. A few times during the movie, Lee switches between shaky handheld cameras outside on the street and smooth gliding cameras inside the bank with Clive Owen and the crew, and it drives home just how much the criminals are in control, especially at the beginning. Again, Inside Man rules.
5. Speaking of that gamer kid, there are so many great little characters in Inside Man. There’s Unapologetically Bigoted Cop Who Almost Says The N-Word In Front Of Denzel, there’s Bank Manager Who Gets Beat Up For Not Handing Over His Phone And His Ringtone Is “Golddigger,” there’s Willem Dafoe Playing A Shockingly Normal Cop For Some Reason. But my favorite small character is this lady.
A quick primer on the Albania ruse: There’s this bit that happens early on in the negotiations, where the criminals ask for food and the cops send in pizza boxes that are bugged with listening devices. The devices start picking up a passionate discussion in a language they don’t recognize. Denzel plays it over the police van’s speaker to see if someone on the street recognizes it. A construction worker — Extremely New York Man — says “That’s Albanian,” which he then reveals he only knows because his ex-wife used to yell at him in Albanian. When another translator can’t be found, Denzel makes him call his ex-wife, pictured above. She proceeds to:
- Hand them a huge box filled with parking tickets, because she will not translate the audio for the police at the hostage situation without getting something out of it, which means she kind of out-negotiated the professional negotiators
- Light up a cigarette inside the police van
- Laugh in their faces and tell them the audio is a recording of an old political speech, because, as we’ll soon find out, Clive Owen knew the cops were listening and wanted to send them on a wild goose chase
She is the greatest.
6. That’s not the only funny part of the movie, either. It’s mostly a crime drama. Let’s be clear about that. But because the criminals made all the hostages put on the same painter’s outfits they were wearing, and no one could tell the crooks from the victims, Denzel and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) have to interrogate everyone. These are interspersed throughout the movie and are delightful, with the two cops almost forming a comedy team as they try to figure out what’s going on. I could watch Denzel Washington good-naturedly grill old whites ladies about bank robberies all day.
7. We’ll discuss the ending in a minute, but first I have to ruin part of the movie for you. I apologize in advance. The first time Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer’s character meet in person, after he realizes he might be in trouble, they talk about his concerns in vague terms as they walk down a sidewalk. The scene is cool for a number of reasons, including how she flips the power dynamic on him when he tries to brush off her questions. But on about my 14th viewing on the movie, I noticed that their steps match up perfectly while they’re walking next to each other and now it’s all I can see when I watch the scene. It’s all you’ll be able to see now, too, every time you watch the movie. I’m sorry.
8. Christopher Plummer has one of those voices where you’re like “Is he British or just really distinguished?” I finally Googled it last night. Turns out he’s Canadian. This might be the biggest twist in the entire movie, which is saying something, because…
9. It’s easy to breeze past it after you’ve seen the movie a few times, but do you remember the first time you realized the title “Inside Man” referred to Clive Owen actually hiding in the bank, in a tiny area they built into the storage room behind a shelf stocked with supplies? I was blown away. Especially when I remembered him telling Denzel that he was just going to “walk out that door” when he was good and ready. The reveals come tumbling at you fast in the last 30 minutes or so. There’s this, there’s the fact that they were all using toy guns instead of real ones, there’s the fake execution. Watching Denzel put all this together — late, but still — and then figure out the Nazi business is just about on par with watching Agent Kujan figure out he was talking to Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects. Maybe not as surprising, but definitely as fun.
10. The cool thing about Inside Man is that almost everyone comes away unscathed. Denzel solves the case and makes Detective First Grade and goes home to his girlfriend with an untraceable diamond that Clive Owen slipped into his pocket without him realizing it. Clive Owen gets away with the rest of his crew after hiding in his little room. The hostages all survive, even if they’re a little traumatized, understandably. The only person who really loses in the movie is Christopher Plummer’s character, who gets his beans roasted real good about two or three times as the movie winds down, first when Jodie Foster confronts him in a barber chair and tells him she put his name down as a reference for an apartment Osama bin Laden’s nephew purchased, and then when Denzel reveals that he found a diamond ring Clive Owen left behind on purpose, because it belonged to a Holocaust victim and can tie together all the secret Nazi business for the authorities.
Or, to put it more succinctly: Everything works out for the people you like and a Holocaust profiteer gets roasted to hell by Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster. You could do a whole lot worse with two hours of your time.