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Explosive Action


Denzel Washington, the cop, and Jodie Foster, the consultant, in Inside Man.  

The normally subversive Spike Lee takes a rare genial tack in Inside Man, a project that must be intended to give him more Hollywood street (or boulevard) cred. This is a leisurely, smoothly made and very pleasant hostage picture—and if my criticism is implicit in that description, I found myself savoring a thriller (as well as a Spike Lee “joint”) that wasn’t, for a change, in my face.

Clive Owen plays a coolly deliberate robber who, with a small posse of masked gunmen, seizes a Wall Street bank but seems strangely indifferent to the vault’s immense stacks of bills. What’s his game? Could it have anything to do with a mysterious safe-deposit box owned by the pillar-of-society chairman (Christopher Plummer), who hires his own high-priced consultant (Jodie Foster) to open an underground channel with the thieves? The police negotiator (Denzel Washington) studies the situation like a chess grandmaster and holds off making contact with the heist leader. “I’m not callin’ him yet,” he murmurs. “Doesn’t feel right . . . yet.” Neither he nor the picture is in any hurry.

For all the hop in his technique, Lee’s films rarely have a lot of momentum. He’s always ready to distend the narrative with bits of local (in this case, interracial) color and moody tracking shots. Here, the limpid score by Terence Blanchard is like a Bond soundtrack slowed down and reorchestrated by Elmer Bernstein: delightful, armchair stuff. And even if Owen’s robber is not too squeamish to pistol-whip a bureaucrat who tries to conceal a cell phone, he doesn’t appear to have the sociopathic chops. The addition of tricky flash-forwards featuring Washington and his partner (that charismatic chameleon Chiwetel Ejiofor) interrogating former hostages tips you off that, at the very least, an all-out massacre is not in the cards.

Foster’s sleekly confident fixer is memorable only as a change of pace: Without evident emotional investment or vulnerability, she’s not particularly vivid. But Owen and Washington are endlessly delightful enigmas. Washington, with his head shaved, is so casual that he borders on goofy; he’s almost Brando-weird. But nobody is slumming in Inside Man, least of all Lee. After pugnaciously leading with his integrity for more than two decades, maybe he even enjoyed making an impersonal heist picture. I can see all the studio heads reaching for their phones when they realize the movie’s real bad guy was once beastly to the Jews: “Spike—wassup, dog! Have I got a project for you!”

As the son of William F., the humorist Christopher Buckley evidently can’t bring himself to endorse the “politically correct,” but he’s big enough to admit that maybe cigarettes do give people cancer and ease of access to guns might have its downside. The upshot is his ironic novel Thank You for Smoking, with its stylishly amoral protagonist, Nick Naylor, a virtuoso spinmeister for Big Tobacco. In the grand libertarian tradition, Buckley admires Nick (and his comrades in the firearm, junk-food, and alcohol industries) for bearing the slings and arrows of the moralistic liberal media. And while Nick has enough stature to be mildly abashed by what he does, Buckley reserves his real contempt for meddlesome big government in the form of a crusading anti-smoking senator (played in the film by William H. Macy) who is not only a bantamweight opportunist but has no élan, no joie de vivre.

Whatever his politics, Buckley is archly amusing and light on his feet. The young director Jason Reitman (another son—of Ivan), who adapted the novel, is arch and leaden. To work onscreen, Thank You for Smoking needed to be fast, scruffy, and offhand. But even the good lines here last a self-congratulatory beat too long. Aaron Eckhart is likable, but he’s too hangdog and naturalistic for a part that could have used a brisk young Jack Lemmon type. (As a reporter who uses her big, rapt eyes and hot bod to tease out his secrets, Katie Holmes has more of a chance to cut loose.) The scenes that should set the movie’s tone, Nick’s leisurely lunches with the mod Squad—a.k.a. the Merchants of Death, played by Maria Bello (alcohol lobbyist) and David Koechner (gun lobbyist)—are visually dead. (You mainly see Bello in profile.) Reitman and his cinematographer, James Whitaker, have come up with a peculiar yellowish, overexposed look that doesn’t fit the material—unless it’s meant to suggest how tobacco leaves one’s lungs, which I somehow doubt.

Introduce a helpless infant into a movie and the stakes immediately rocket, which is what happens in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s exhausting L’Enfant. As in the Belgian brothers’ Rosetta and The Son, the protagonist is unreadable for a while and unlikable for much longer; it’s only when his conscience rises to the surface that he comes into focus. Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is an unemployed petty thief who routinely exploits young kids to do his dirty work. His lone accomplishment seems to have been fathering a boy with his girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François)—an accomplishment he definitively negates by impulsively selling the child, without the mother’s knowledge, to a ring of illegal adoption brokers. Living in an avaricious fog with no larger awareness, stirred only by sex, (tacky) clothes, and booze, Bruno appears to be blindsided by Sonia’s response: tremors, uncomprehending gurgles, unconsciousness, inconsolable grief, and borderline catatonia. As the young man wanders around trying to process what he’s done, he discovers that the road back into his girlfriend’s arms is more arduous than any he has traveled before.

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