Some time ago I was swapping jokes with a co-worker when we discovered we had the same favorite. It's a lengthy joke, and for obvious reasons I won't go into it in length here. Suffice it to say that it involves a man with half an orange for a head relating the story of how he came to be this way.
After several minutes worth of details involving a magic lamp and a genie that grants three wishes, the punchline comes as the man reveals that his third wish was to have … half an orange for a head. I realize it doesn't sound the least bit funny in its abridged form, but trust me - the anti-climax gag can be a killer when done right.
You might say that Spike Lee's "Inside Man" is the cinematic equivalent of that joke. The film sets itself up as a crackerjack genre piece involving a meticulously plotted bank heist complete with double-dealings, shady "good guys," and details that suggest something much larger than a bank robbery is taking place. The film teases us with suspense and the kind of hard-boiled rat-a-tat dialogue you might find in a David Mamet film.
It seems like Lee is setting us up for a doozy of a payoff, but when the dust settles and everything is explained, the viewer is left with a profound feeling of emptiness. I guess it turns out that an anti-climax isn't quite so amusing when you've just invested more than two hours of your valuable time on the set-up.
Thankfully, Lee wastes no time in getting the ball rolling. Within the opening minutes of the film, four perpetrators dressed as painters have taken over a major New York bank and are holding about 50 people hostage. Their ringleader (Clive Owen, personifying cool) is calculating and reposed, and it's clear that he knows exactly what he wants and how he's going to get it.
Enter Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington, typically magnetic in the kind of role he could do in his sleep), a cop who's in it deep with Internal Affairs and understandably eager to impress his superiors. He thinks he's top dog at the crime scene, until the mysterious Madeline White (Jodie Foster) shows up along with the mayor, looking to ensure that certain "interests" held within the bank's safe deposit boxes are protected. It soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary bank robbery - if even a bank robbery at all - and Frazier must scramble to figure out how everything fits together.
For the first 100 minutes, "Inside Man" is a genuinely exciting, darkly humorous thriller that delivers on all fronts. Being a Spike Lee joint, it also has some pointed observations to make about race relations in a post-9/11 New York. But such matters are secondary to the film's effectiveness as a genre piece, and the rule stands that a thriller is only as good as its conclusion.
Despite the enjoyment that genre fans are sure to take away from the bulk of its running time, the film's stupefyingly under-whelming conclusion will leave them wondering why they invested so much time on something that wasn't willing to follow through with a satisfying payoff.
"Inside Man" is rated R for language and violence.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
** 1/2 (out of four)