On its surface, the consistently entertaining new heist flick Inside Man doesn't seem like the usual "Spike Lee Joint." A cool, slick thriller, it finds the maverick director working with his biggest budget in years, a cast full of A-list Oscar-bait and a twisty script that doesn't easily lend itself to Lee's editorializing. But look a little closer, and the similarities to his other movies will begin to present themselves. A charismatic-but-flawed hero played by Denzel Washington? Check. A makeshift community of minorities and working-class folks, infiltrated and tormented by a small group of backstabbing white people? Check. A not-so-subtle moral about big business being the root of all evil? Check. Something to offend women and Jews? Check.
That last one may be somewhat misleading, since the misogyny and anti-Semitism on display in Inside Man gradually reveals itself to be part of a more intricate mystery in Russell Gewirtz's script. But this is one instance where Lee's incessant button-pushing actually works to the advantage of the material. By working within a clearly defined genre and freeing himself from the constraints of his own overly ambitious, scattershot scripts, Lee is able to doodle in the margins with his ideas on race, class and power. In another director's hands, the film might be an entertaining but predictable time-waster with some decent dialogue and a few preposterous conceits, not unlike the recent dull Harrison Ford vehicle, Firewall. Though Inside Man may not be as good as the movies that obviously influenced it the crime classics of the '70s Lee and Washington create a strong package.
The heist gets underway quickly: Robbers descend on a lower Manhattan bank, bullying the melting pot of disgruntled ethnic New Yorkers who work for and patronize the company. Dressed in black jumpsuits, white masks and sunglasses, the criminals look like a slightly more felonious version of the Beastie Boys. Meanwhile, detective Keith Frazier (Washington) twiddles his thumbs behind a desk; accused by a drug ring of stealing some cash, he's been waiting for a plum assignment, and jumps at the chance to intervene downtown.
But criminal mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has made Frazier's work a little harder by dressing all of the captives in the exact same outfit as the thugs, confusing both the hostages and the trigger-happy SWAT teams outside. As the day progresses without a compromise, the crime scene turns into something of a carnival, with media, police and various power players showing up to wield their influence. Bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) enlists some help of his own in the form of Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a silky smooth, behind-the-scenes negotiator who uses corporations' checkbooks to make sure their "interests are protected." Frazier butts heads with White, but they both soon learn that the bank owner may have more to protect than just his cash.
Lee uses his considerable visual talents to ratchet up the suspense: When strategies are suggested, he plays out multiple scenarios onscreen, and he even flashes forward to post-robbery interrogation scenes, so that you're left wondering who will make it out alive. The director falters a bit in the opening scenes, when he attempts to contrast Owen's sinister brutality with Washington's laid-back demeanor. But the film gets better as it progresses, when it becomes clear this pressure-cooker scenario has more in common with a playful cat-and-mouse crime flick like The Italian Job than it does with a hyper-realistic hostage picture.
In fact, most of the fun of the film is seeing how Lee and his actors Washington and Foster in particular play with the conventions of crime movies. No one takes their work too seriously here; even their conversations have a deliberately unreal, movie-literate tone. "You've seen Dog Day Afternoon," Frazier says to Dalton at one point. Of course, most of the audience probably hasn't seen that heist classic, and they should if they want to see a truly great crime picture. But until another Dog Day comes along, Inside Man is a decent way to pass the time.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.