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Spike Lee has done commercials, of course. But has he ever really done commercial? Apparently, the uneven auteur was willing to do anything to make up for She Hate Me, his unwatchable 2004 effort about corporate malfeasance, alternative families, George W. Bush, and, uh, Woody Harrelson. Except for a few trademark tricks and some race-related chatter, the new Inside Man is as far from a Spike Lee Joint as the director is likely ever to get. How box-office-seductive is this heist movie? Let’s just say that Ron Howard was originally slated to direct.
Lee’s work here is energetic and assured, but it’s unlikely that even Ed Wood could’ve screwed up Russell Gewirtz’s stellar debut script. A tight, smart puzzler that doesn’t throw out red herrings so much as intriguing question marks, Inside Man has all the wit, complexity, and self-awareness of The Usual Suspects or Dog Day Afternoon. (The latter is even referenced during the inevitable hostage negotiations.) It all starts when the supremely confident Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and three others walk into a Manhattan bank dressed as painters—from Perfectly Planned Painting, according to their van. With masks and sunglasses on, they disable the cameras, set off smoke bombs, and then herd the customers and tellers into a room. Cell phones and keys are gathered, and the hostages are asked to strip so they can don jumpsuits that make them indiscernible from their captors.
Soon, an army of law-enforcement representatives and spectators—most annoyed that they can’t pass through—surrounds the building. Second-tier hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are sent to the scene to work with Emergency Services Unit Capt. John Darius (Willem Dafoe). With three of the film’s five big names in place, the cat-mouse-and-adversarial-department-heads game begins.
Between Gewirtz’s script and Lee’s likely encouragement of some improvised scenes, Inside Man smoothly incorporates a jumble of topics. There’s the greed that can lurk inside even the most saintly seeming public servants. (Frazier isn’t above doing some leveraging for his own benefit during the conflict.) There’s the way the technology-savvy now prefer to travel in isolated, antagonistic bubbles. (Before the heist, a woman gabbing loudly on her cell phone is given looks by everyone, including a dude listening to an iPod.) There’s, of course, racial tension, now among blacks, whites, and anyone brown-skinned or turbaned. (A Sikh bank employee complains about the trouble he’s faced since 9/11, to which Frazier replies, “I bet you can get a cab, though.”)
Even the violence promoted by video games, rappers, and commercial heist movies gets some commentary: Russell sits in the bank vault with the only child among the hostages as the kid’s eating the pizza the thief brought him. The youngster tells Russell that he admires what he’s doing, quoting 50 Cent’s mantra to get rich or die tryin’. Russell then takes a look at his prisoner’s guns-and-grenades-laden vid and announces, “I’m going to have to talk to your father about this game.”
The twist to this seemingly old-fashioned caper involves the mysterious personal stake the bank’s chair (Christopher Plummer) has in the robbery and the even more mysterious “power broker” (a perfectly slick, icy Jodie Foster) whom he hires to make sure the contents of his safe-deposit box remain safe. As we, along with Frazier, are kept guessing at the criminal’s true motive, we’re treated to ace performances, snappy (if impossibly clever) dialogue, and Lee’s distinctive style. The camera bobs, whirls, shakes, and blurs along with the action, and the director also includes his signature dolly shot, especially effective when Frazier briefly loses his cool. Inside Man may brush instead of push the director’s usual hot buttons, but it also proves the sureness of his touch. As Spike Lee Joints go, this one is briskly entertaining, sharply observed, and, perhaps best of all for the filmmaker, effortlessly relevant.
Music-video director Chris Robinson’s feature debut, ATL, also throws a lot of topics at you—but with a speed and lack of subtlety that’s not fit for even MTV2 viewers. Written by Drumline scripter Tina Gordon Chism and Antwone Fisher, the writer and subject of 2002’s eponymous film, ATL centers on the spectacularly broad theme of growing up in Atlanta and the options African-American teenagers face. That might have been fine, if only the filmmakers didn’t decide to tell the stories of seemingly every black kid in the city.
Seventeen-year-old Rashad (Tip Harris, aka rapper T.I.) narrates, so let’s pretend the movie focuses on him. He starts off by declaring that his father always said that dreaming is for children, because “when you got responsibilities, you ain’t got time to dream.” Rashad then introduces his family and friends with the help of Robinson’s freeze frames: Straight arrow Rashad and his impressionable younger brother, Ant (Evan Ross Naess, Diana Ross’ son), have been living with their Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson) since their parents were killed in a car accident. Esquire (Jackie Long), one of Rashad’s friends, works at a country club and is applying to an Ivy League school. Among the seemingly inconsequential but eventually pivotal roles are Rashad’s squeeze-to-be, New-New (Lauren London), and neighborhood drug dealer Marcus (OutKast’s Big Boi). Among the seemingly inconsequential but eventually pointless roles are a couple of other dudes Rashad hangs with (Jason Weaver and Albert Daniels), a set of twin girls (Khadijah and Malika Haqq) who twirl their hair and steal their brand-name accessories, the twins’ crazy mother, and Rashad’s ex-girlfriend. And on Sunday nights, everyone goes roller-skating. There’s something about teams and competition mentioned, but that also turns out not to really matter.
The plot points that are eventually pushed to the forefront are Ant’s decision to deal for Marcus, a secret New-New is desperate to keep, and Esquire’s serendipitous meeting of a CEO (Keith David) who could supply the letter of recommendation the boy needs to complete his college application. Oh yeah, and Rashad plugs away as a janitor, saving money for Ant to go to school and—I suppose this is the dreaming part—ignoring the artistic talent that he’s occasionally shown to have because he’s resigned to live a hardscrabble life.
As Robinson jumps from story to story, the focus seems to be not so much on growing up as on checking out the various young actresses’ booty-shakin’ bods, with his camera frequently serving as elevator eyes. The director often shows some visual flair—a character seen reflected in someone else’s sunglasses, for instance, or scene changes in which one shot ghosts itself onto another—but his hurried juggling of plots gets further marred by David Blackburn’s unforgivably choppy editing toward the end.
The best that can be said about ATL is that Chism and Fisher’s dialogue is natural-sounding, frequently funny, and delivered with very little effort by the movie’s mostly inexperienced cast. But those who live by the word die by the word, and when Uncle George gives his nephews the Important Speech and summarizes the film’s theme by saying, “It’s all about the feelings,” you know ATL is terminal.CP