Spike Lee's heist film Inside Man takes some unexpected left turns. But the real thrills come from Lee's consistently engaging storytelling.
Lee lends tremendous energy to this tale of a band of criminals who take over a New York City bank. Generous close-ups and dynamic editing generate tenseness and immediacy, but the movie pulses even at its quietest moments.
A look at Lee's brilliant but uneven career reveals a few truths: His films tend to be better when written with or by other people and/or when Denzel Washington appears in them. Inside Man starts on a high note, because it stars Washington and was written by newcomer Russell Gewirtz.
Washington plays Keith Frazier, an NYPD detective and hostage negotiator called in after a band of robbers, led by a smooth operator named Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), round up customers and employees of the Wall Street branch of a venerable Manhattan bank.
Washington has played a lot of cops in recent years, but thoughts of pigeonholing vanish once you get a load of this particular cop. First off, Detective Frazier is not on the eve of retirement, as detectives tend to be in crime thrillers, but still has plenty of juice and ambition. He's also entering the hostage crisis under the shadow of an internal affairs charge that he kept money from a drug bust.
The possibility that he might be crooked, combined with an ease of manner bordering on impertinence, lend unusual intrigue to the character. The detective provides regular doses of humor when his tendency to pop off overwhelms his hostage negotiator's poise.
When Russell, in modified Unabomber gear of hooded jumpsuit, sunglasses and cloth covering most of his face, sees fit to advise the detective on a personal matter, Frazier's sarcastic response is made more withering by Washington's aw-shucks manner.
Directed by: Spike Lee
Starring: Denzel Washington (Keith Frazier), Clive Owen (Dalton Russell), Jodie Foster (Madeliene White), Doug Aguirre (Mayor's Assistant), Willem Dafoe (Captain Darius)
Running time: 129 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
Unfazed by the detective's witticisms or by anything else, Russell doesn't seem to be in any particular hurry to escape with the money.
In her best performance in years, Foster plays Madeline White, a high-end fixer whose chic outfits in soothing Earth tones can't hide an icy interior.
A luxury real estate broker by vocation, White counts the mayor among the power players in her pocket. She's been approached by the bank's founder (Christopher Plummer) to negotiate with the bank robbers apart from the police investigation.
Washington and Foster go toe to toe without getting showy about it. Madeline expects the detective to instantly cave and let her meet with Russell, but he won't unless it's under his terms. Inside Man isn't interested in the starkness of right and wrong. Most of the film's characters occupy a murkier space between redeemable and irredeemable.
Owen doesn't make the impact that Washington and Foster do, but he gives a powerful performance considering that he delivers most of it with the audience unable to read his expressions.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, another hot British import, appears as Wash-ington's partner and provides the film's moral compass. But Ejiofor, a major talent and usually a big presence, seems like a mere sidekick to Washington.
Inside Man foretells some major plot developments rather early in the film -- a gambit that underlines Lee and Gewirtz's confidence that their third-act twists will wow viewers enough to compensate for the sneak peek. But the final half-hour, though charged and well-acted, also seems to leave a few loose ends. This might be one of those films that needs a single viewing to be enjoyed, and another viewing to make perfect sense.