Spike Lee’s brilliant direction and a clever and surprising script from first-timer Russell Gewirtz provide an ideal setting for four of the most watchable actors in the business in a heist film that transcends and tweaks its genre. It has brains, heart, and a sizzling fireball of sheer star power, and it is a dazzling tour de force.
Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) tells us his story and then we see it unfold from the beginning, with little forward glimpses of post-robber interviews by detectives Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Four people enter a bank dressed as painters. They take out the security cameras with powerful lights and then tell everyone to lie down. They are there to rob the bank and all of the employees and customers are hostages.
Even though he is dealing with his own problems at the office, including a matter of some missing money that may be a frame-up by an angry drug dealer, Frazier is sent to negotiate with the robbers. The police captain (Willem Dafoe) secures the area. And the chairman of the board of the bank (Christopher Plummer) makes his first call to a mysterious woman named White (Jodie Foster), as silkily menacing when asking a favor, proposing a bribe, or making a threat. Indeed, there seems to be no difference between the three. It seems that the chairman has some very important items in a safe deposit box in the bank that is being robbed. Those contents must be protected or destroyed and he must be assured of compete discretion. So she will have to find a way to negotiate with the robber, too.
Lee drives the film through the twists and turns of the plot as though it was a European sportscar. When he shoots his own scripts, it is easy to forget what a superb director he is because the stories are so provocative they distract from his skill in telling the story. But in this film, every choice of shot, every point of view, every edit serves the story and Lee’s superb control of tone, pacing, and setting are almost another character in the film. And so is the city. Lee’s obvious affection for the city’s structures and people is evident throughout, and many of its brightest moments come from the wide range of characters who are vividly realized even in brief appearances.
Denzel Washington may be the greatest movie star of our time. There is no one who can match him for sheer star power and charisma, and no one who comes close to the way he is as in control of that power in service of the story and the character. His Frazier is a man who takes his time in the midst of chaos to calm a witness, to ask a beat cop about a past experience, to pay attention to every detail and make them part of the narrative and part of the unraveling of the mystery. In their fourth film together, Lee shows once again that he knows how to use Washington’s confidence and natural charm to pull us into the story and the small moments as meaningful as the guns and all those piles of cash.
Clive Owen, who has to do most of his acting behind a mask, has a steely resolve, but in scenes with Washington and with a child who is one of the hostages, he shows self-assured wit that is completely engaging. Washington, Owen, and Ejiofor play off each other as though they are tossing off jazz riffs — it seems effortless and improvised but it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle with no missing pieces. Only Foster disappoints, waggling her head as an attempt to show gravitas. And maybe the way it all comes together is a little too cute. There are a couple of “wait a minute….” thoughts on the way to the parking lot. Overall, though, it is the most satisying film of the year so far, by far.
Some people will complain that Lee has become an “inside man,” trading his tough, highly individual, fully engaged films about big issues for a genre piece. I don’t agree. What he has done here is show that he knows how to make a mainstream film that works on many levels, one of them being sheer entertainment. If that’s “inside,” so what? Let him take the money and the clout and do something else next time.
Parents should know that this movie has very strong and crude language, including racial epithets and sexual references. There is some violence, including shooting and apparent killing. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of intelligent and capable diverse characters who are honest about bigotry but do their best to work together.
Families who see this movie should talk about how Frazier, Russell, White, the mayor, and Case decide what their priorities are. Who makes the biggest compromises? What will happen next?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy other heist movie classics, like $, Die Hard 3, the original Thomas Crown Affair, The Great Train Robbery, The Taking of Pelham 123, Dog Day Afternoon, and the underrated Bill Murray comedy Quick Change.