Slicker Spike Breaks the Bank

Spike Lee’s bank-heist thriller Inside Man has two things going for it: better actors than usual and a slicker look. Otherwise, it’s no different from nine out of 10 other preposterous, contrived, confusingly written, unevenly directed, pointless and forgettable junk films we’ve been getting these days. Among the bankrupt casualties you’ll find Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Plummer and Jodie Foster in what amounts to little more than a cameo. In the age of low-budget independent grab-a-flicks, this high-powered waste of time proves what superior talents have to do now to collect an occasional big-studio Hollywood paycheck.

From some unidentified jail cell, an anonymous, whiskered prisoner (Clive Owen) tells us in gory close-ups to pay close attention as he explains the who, what, when, where and why of the perfect bank robbery he’s planning. The rest of the movie is about the “how.” I might as well warn you in advance that it doesn’t matter how much close attention you pay, because by the time this movie ends, none of it makes sense anyway. Up to a point, Inside Man contains just enough glib commentary, sarcastic dialogue, screwy logic and tongue-in-cheek acting by people who can smell hokum a block away to keep you interested. Then, like so many other recent flops, the movie devotes the final 20 minutes to explaining everything that happened, and the more it tells, the sillier it gets. Finally, it collapses in a puddle of ludicrous and embarrassing cinematic incontinence. Quick, bring Spike Lee a diaper to wipe up the mess.

A gang of robbers enters a bank in the Wall Street financial district in broad daylight with masks, flashlights, paint cans and an arsenal of automatic weapons, and all the security guard says is, “Excuse me …. ” Then the four crooks force everyone to strip and don costumes just like the ones they’re wearing. When the founder, president and chairman of the board of directors (Christopher Plummer) is informed that a robbery is in progress, he says, “Oh, my!” But despite the details, nothing is as it seems, and this is no routine heist. Surrounded by hostage negotiators, cops, ambulances and fire engines, Mr. Owen and his accomplices are in no hurry to empty the vaults.

The detective assigned to the case (Denzel Washington) is in a lot of trouble for allegedly stealing drug-bust money, but that subplot is quickly abandoned. He’s too busy listening to what sounds like Albanian accents on a walkie-talkie that are coming from inside the bank. While the crooks take time to feed a child hostage a pizza, the Albanian translator the cops drag in wants her parking tickets fixed. The voice turns out to be a tape recording of the president of Albania delivering a speech. Meanwhile, there’s an even bigger problem behind the subterfuge: The bank robbers don’t seem to be interested in actually stealing anything. So what are they up to? What do they really want? There’s the only talisman Spike Lee lives by: When in doubt, throw another red herring into the fry pan while, for no logical reason, showing as many signs and posters about 9/11 as possible at the same time.

Enter the kind of mystery woman that could only be dreamed up by the Style section of The New York Times (Jodie Foster, with Grace Kelly hair, pointed Chita Rivera stiletto heels and legs like Cyd Charisse), who knows where every dead body is hidden and what every scandal costs in New York and Washington. What she does for a living is never explained, but after blackmailing the Mayor into getting her into the bank vault, she negotiates with the bank robbers to rescue the bank president’s personal safety-deposit box without opening or even touching it.

The focus shifts from zillions of dollars in booty and the demand for a jumbo jet to just what in hell is in that safety-deposit box. I’m not giving anything away when I tell you the secret is quickly revealed: seems the monstrous C.E.O. started the bank with blood money he made off the Nazis in World War II, and he’s hired Jodie to bargain for those secret papers. Oh, yes, I forgot about the diamonds: The Nazi papers are surrounded by diamonds. But Clive Owen already knows that. Never mind the money, the jet, the hostages and Jodie Foster—all he wants is one safety deposit-box with no number. And all Denzel Washington wants is to figure out what the hell is going on. (The audience is on his side.) When the cops stampede the bank, they find fake guns, toy blood, no damage, no suspects and all the money intact. There’s still 20 minutes to go, but if you stay for the hurricane of resolutions that follow, you’ll hate yourself in the morning.

The movie shows the wacked-out pieces of people’s personalities under stress. My problem is that the people are too immoral to care about. Every slimy protagonist spouts jaw-grinding clichés about pop culture to demonstrate their superior intelligence, but you’ll knock yourself out trying to find anyone to root for. You’ll also end up exhausted from the incoherence of it all.

Who is Clive Owen? How does he know about the diamonds from a jail cell? When did he find the time to dig a hole into the sewer system under the bank and hide out for a week without anyone noticing (or smelling) anything suspicious? Who does Jodie Foster work for, and where did she get her power? What happened to Denzel Washington’s expulsion from the NYPD? If he claims to be one of “New York’s Finest,” why does he steal a diamond ring so valuable it could pay off the national debt? When he shows it to the cowering Christopher Plummer, why is it no longer a ring? Did he steal two diamonds? What happened to the bank robbers? Why do they just disappear from the movie? No wonder the actors have no distinctive locks on their characters. The people they play in Inside Man are vile, corrupt and trying to schnooker each other blind to get what they want, but it’s never clear what they wanted in the first place. In the end, what gets schnookered is the audience.

Mobster Circus

A new kind of Felliniesque entertainment form has sprung to life in America. It is called the “courtroom trial,” and any resemblance to life in the halcyon days when Judge Hardy sternly reprimanded wayward youngsters in saddle oxfords for flagpole sitting is purely accidental. Now, the Menendez brothers get marriage proposals, serial killers get more fan mail than Gable and Garbo in their heyday, and murder trials have become Theater of the Dangerously Absurd, mass-marketed on Court TV. Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and Dr. Sam Sheppard had their day. Now a hypnotized nation suffering from O.J. withdrawal is searching for the next center-ring superstars on courtroom playbills—vaudeville acts so bizarre they should be covered by actors instead of Nancy Grace.

Sidney Lumet knows. In his excellent, polished, meticulously researched and entirely galvanizing new film, Find Me Guilty, he chronicles a mobster circus so wild, improbable and shocking that if it wasn’t true, you’d accuse a great director of losing his marbles. This is the story of Giacomo (Jackie Dee) DiNorscio, played by an astonishingly unfamiliar Vin Diesel: a minor member of the Lucchese crime family who became a key player in the epic 1987 courtroom antics that dragged out over more than 21 months, with 20 defendants, an army of attorneys (one for each defendant), a jury that added eight alternates because of bribery and death threats, and summary speeches that broke all records (one gangster’s lawyer had a closing statement that ran for five days). It was the longest criminal trial in U.S. history, but the jury took only 14 hours to acquit them all! Even in an age when families of Gottis, Genoveses and Gambinos continue to make headlines, the Lucchese crime-family trial made history.

The central element that wrecked the U.S. prosecution’s case and won the jury was the funny, obnoxious, charming and totally unpredictable spotlight attraction of Jackie Dee, also called “Fat Jack” by the mob, who had the audacity to act in his own self-defense, turning the trial into a stand-up comedy routine, and rendering the judge, jury and his vicious fellow mugs speechless. If he hadn’t already been serving a 30-year stretch for narcotics trafficking, Jackie would have undoubtedly ended up with his own talk show.

Smoked out by then–District Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, brought to trial on 76 counts of every crime imaginable, and charged by an army of prosecutors thirsty for blood, things did not look good for the Lucchese mob that allegedly controlled every vice in New Jersey. Then Jackie, considered a bona fide meathead by everyone on both sides of the law, was offered a deal: rat on the mob and you get a reduced sentence, promised Judge Sidney Finestein (played here by Ron Silver).

But Jackie was loyal—a dese-dem-dose goomba who considered the “family” sacred. He was such a disruptive clown that the judge first fined him for contempt, then considered breaking up the trial and trying him separately. As the months wore on, however, one lady juror pronounced him “cute” to the press, and the judge called him out of the courtroom to tell him personally that his mother had died. He reached his closing argument on Day 627. Everyone else went free; Jackie went back to jail in Jersey, a mob hero.

Mr. Lumet, now in his 80’s, has lost none of his power, control, schematic vision or filmmaking genius. He knows how to frame a scene. He’s a wunderkind when it comes to dissecting a massive, complex, detail-packed script into scenes that flow and meld smoothly like layers in a Napoleon. He knows how to direct actors. He gets a performance from Vin Diesel that is positively miraculous. Who knew he could act? With wigs, prosthetics, a gut and a 40-pound weight gain from eating gallons of ice cream, this Muscle McGurk turns into a deft, daunting, dancing bear that commands and holds attention for 124 minutes. And he gets walloping support from Annabella Sciorra as his sluttish, filthy-mouthed ex-wife; Linus Roache as the frustrated chief prosecutor; the extraordinary “little person” Peter Dinklage as one of the mob attorneys, who was so small he had to stand on a stepladder to address the court; and Alex Rocco as Jackie’s chief mob nemesis.

Yes, the movie has a troublesome way of turning the scum of the earth into working stiffs both humorous and human. But a generation that grew up loving (even envying) various Godfathers and Sopranos have ceased to attach moral judgments to rats and thugs and hoods as long as they can play Atlantic City. Jackie Dee (especially the way Vin Diesel plays him) emerges as no more threatening than Jackie Gleason. He died shortly before Mr. Lumet’s film began shooting. I’m sure his review of Find Me Guilty would have been witty, X-rated, and unforgettable.

Slicker Spike Breaks the Bank