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How many heist thrillers can you think of that are better than Inside Man? Hardly any, for me. It’s an effortless knockout, a note-perfect entry in a genre that requires absolute precision. It’s so easy to screw up a heist movie. We should be thankful that we ever get any good ones, let alone ones as good as this.
But what’s most extraordinary about Inside Man isn’t just that it’s good. It’s that it comes from an auteur known for making films far, far outside the genre. Why did Spike Lee make Inside Man? How does it fit within his canon? And why has he never returned to a genre he so handily mastered?
The key to any great heist thriller is the turn. Near the end of the story, there’s a sudden twist that reframes everything that came before it. In film, this usually involves a montage showing previous scenes from a new perspective, in the process completely changing their meaning. Inside Man has no such moment, but it uses that principle throughout the runtime. There are lots of little turns rather than one big one, a series of small reveals that eventually point to a conclusion.
The reason this works is because the genre’s typical perspective is shifted from the criminals to the detective trying to figure them out. Most heist thrillers let us in on the plan from the beginning, only to reveal at the end the crucial piece of information we missed. In Inside Man, we have no idea what the plan is, and so each new scrap of intel uncovered by the police becomes its own tiny twist, creating a new framework of understanding even as it presents new challenges. It leads to this Jeopardy-style narrative, giving us answers before we even know what questions to ask, showing us how the thieves get around problems before we’re even aware of what the problems are.
When I talk about the specificities of how Inside Man succeeds within its genre, I don’t mean to suggest that Lee left some of himself behind to pull it off. This film works because it’s a Spike Lee Joint, not in spite of it. Lee returns to familiar racial themes throughout, most notably that of racist police abuse. At one point, a Sikh hostage is freed, and the police assume that he is one of the robbers. They rip off his turban and throw him to the ground. He’s later seen refusing to cooperate with the investigation until his turban is returned. The latter scene has little to do with the rest of the story, but it’s important to Lee to note that while the police may superficially seem to be “the good guys” in this film, they are all still complicit in a racist system.
You might parallel this with the ultimate reason for the heist: The theft of documents proving that the bank’s powerful and influential owner made his fortune by selling out fellow Jews during the Holocaust. Lee has little patience (and plenty of contempt) for people who would sell out their fellow oppressed people for their own gain. We see him struggle with this again in his most recent film, BlacKkKlansman.
But we also see Lee revelling in the diversity of New York City. At one point, the detectives are stumped by their listening devices picking up a language they don’t recognize. They decide to take a recording of it out onto the streets, to see if any citizens recognize it. Sure enough, almost immediately, someone does. Lee seems infatuated with the idea of a city where, for all its problems and racial division, something like this is plausible. And yet Lee still tempers his idealism with the harsh reality of NYPD racism. Lee is not a fabulist, but he’s not a cynic either. This makes him hard to pin down for people who find his work beset by political compromise, but Lee is hardly a centrist. His nuance is genuinely in search of truth, not a shrugging acknowledgement of unexamined complexity. And I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.
So why did he never return to the heist thriller genre? Well, he didn’t really need to do so. His success with Inside Man is comparable to any of his successes. It’s a great film because it’s a Spike Lee film. As much as I’d love him to make another film like Inside Man, I doubt he ever will. He said what he needed to say with this genre framework, and he moved on. As so many filmmakers become trapped within the rhythms of their biggest victories, Lee refuses the siren call of recycling his own. It’s an admirable stance, and I hope we never see a sequel.