Clocking in somewhere around 200 minutes, BBC America’s Inside Men very nearly teaches the proverbial old dog new tricks. Centered around the six months leading up to, and the month following, the robbery of a money-counting house, the four-episode series follows the actions of the three men who help plan and execute the heist from the inside, and by choosing to treat the narrative as a trifurcated character study rather than revisiting the norms of crime procedurals, Inside Men ends up touching on some compelling and engaging truths about men and crime.
This isn’t to say that the entire ordeal is a boys-only affair. The women who wait for the three eponymous wage slaves—John (Steven Mackintosh), Marcus (Warren Brown), and Chris (Ashley Walters)—at home are given ample screen time and prove to be more than just ciphers. But more importantly, they also help invoke a strong element in the pathology of crimes committed by men. For Marcus, it’s the feeling that his plans are never respected and that his girlfriend, Gina (Kierston Wareing), doesn’t trust him or believe in him; for Chris, it’s the need to take care of the mother of his child, Dita (Leila Mimmack), and get some distance from his verbally abusive, alcoholic mother (Donna Alexander). These are men who aren’t confident in their masculinity and who are in search of more extravagant means to exert their prowess.
With a wife (Nicola Walker) and a newly adopted daughter, similar feelings are no doubt teeming in the mind of John, the manager of the counting house. But as the series goes on, one realizes that he has a darker, more elusive goal. When he initially catches his two soon-to-be accomplices trying to run a smaller scam at the counting house, his immediate response is to up the ante: Why take $50,000 when you can nab $100 million with a little more planning, patience, and guts? As it turns out, pencil-pushing John can go from stick-up-the-bum fragility to cool, seductive manipulation in the blink of an eye, able to make arrangements with an outside partner (Irfan Hussein) to supply guns and muscle for the heist one minute, and act overwhelmed at a job interview for an unwanted promotion the next.
John’s trajectory isn’t entirely unlike that of Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, though Tony Basgallop’s writing doesn’t track a person’s descent into crime with as much patience and carefully weighed moral questions as the writers of the AMC series do. While John is increasingly attracted to the thrill and sense of control he gets from the heist, however, Chris is becoming something like an honest man, and Marcus seems to be finally finding something he and his girlfriend enjoy doing together. The heist itself, seen nearly in full in the first episode, makes for gripping viewing, but it’s invigorating moments such as Dita meeting Chris’s boisterous, imprisoned father and Marcus and Gina picking out the right mask for the job that give Inside Men it’s distinct emotional punch and sense of cohesive, substantial storytelling.
The series, directed by James Kent, gets the tone and rhythms of the preparation and crimes right, recalling the scope and focus of prime Sidney Lumet, mixed with Michael Mann’s ruthless formal efficiency, but it’s in the relationships that these men come home to that defines Inside Men as markedly more engaging and effective than a great deal of its ilk. Indeed, the series works on a template that’s familiar to say the least, but both the performances and Basgallop’s nuanced writing make the whole business of ripping off one’s fiscal overlords feel fresh and lively.
The fact that Inside Men has already been announced as merely a one-off, not garnering a second season, is a bitter pill to swallow, but as the series ends, with John gleefully exerting his prominence in defiant yet measured fashion, there’s a certain solace to be taken in a dusty stand-by narrative, revived by prickly, psychologically astute detail and a uniformly great cast, unable to be possibly ruined by anybody’s erratic, unkempt ambitions.