(director: Spike Lee; screenwriter: Russell Gewirtz; cinematographer: Matthew Libatique; editor: Barry Alexander Brown; music: Terence Blanchard; cast: Denzel Washington (Detective Keith Frazier), Clive Owen (Dalton Russell), Jodie Foster (Madeline White), Christopher Plummer (Arthur Case), Willem Dafoe (Capt. John Darius), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Detective Bill Mitchell), Bernard Rachelle (Chaim), Peter Gerety (Captain Coughlin), Victor Colicchio (Sergeant Collins), Peter Frechette (Peter Hammond), Peter Kybart (Mayor), Cassandra Freeman (Sylvia); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Brian Grazer; Universal Pictures; 2006)

“The filmmaker seems to be patting himself on the back for being so smart to put this heist pic over without playing by the rules of the genre.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Spike Lee’s (“She’s Gotta Have It”) newest “joint” revives the now stale bank heist-hostage situation genre (a Hollywood staple) once made with glee in such films as “Dog Day Afternoon.” Here it’s done with a new twist: the robbery is not actually a robbery, and the puzzle is to figure out exactly what it’s all about and not to be too concerned with the heist itself. First-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz provides an engaging and smart screenplay, where a good line is more valuable than ensuring that the plot has no holes. Spike seems mostly interested in ranting about racial profiling post 9/11, video games that are violent and racist, that it’s harder for a black man to get a cab than a Sikh who looks like a terrorist, stoking things up with breezy trash-talk throughout and providing a political lesson by pointing out that you can’t single out one tycoon on the Fortune 500 as being too much different than all the others because in all likelihood each of them participated in an unethical business deal at some time.

It’s set in the heart of the NYC financial district on Wall Street, where a team of four bank robbers dressed in painters’ outfits and white facemasks led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) take over the cornerstone branch of the Manhattan Trust, a bank founded in 1948 by its current chairman of the board Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) and hold about 50 customers and employees hostage. It’s soon uncovered that the haughty but guilt-ridden Case is a Jew who did terrible things in the past relating to Nazi-era ethical violations against the Holocaust victims that enabled him to start his banking empire and that he’s a monster who has successfully cleaned up his image by donating much money to charity, but who now fears that the robbers will steal his security box where there are dark secrets from the past. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is the cocky police detective who gets his big career break when he’s placed in charge of the headline grabbing hostage situation because his boss is on his summer vacation and gets a chance to match wits with bank robber mastermind Dalton (named just like the infamous western bank robbers from the 19th century). Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe) is the stern uniformed cop in charge of the tactical operation, who guards his turf from the new wiseguy detective on the block. Called into the situation by Case is high-powered international fixer Miss White (Jodie Foster), who wears the form-fitting white dresses of the power fems and has the juice to get the mayor to order Frazier to allow her privileged access to the ongoing robbery investigation. She will, off the record, negotiate with the mastermind so Case’s secrets are not let out of the box and in the bargain the detective can expect to be rewarded with a promotion for his cooperation.

The movie delays its ending (Spike just can’t make a film in under two hours) with a lot of wasted crowd scene shots that go nowhere in advancing the story line but are playfully amusing; as a result the Inside Man never reaches your usual nail-biter payoff, but instead pays dividends with an unpredictable story line woven from a conventional one. The filmmaker seems to be patting himself on the back for being so smart to put this heist pic over without playing by the rules of the genre. Denzel, who gets the best lines, easily carries the film on his shoulders with his earthy Bogie-like performance, while the talented supporting cast crisply do what’s asked of them and the two Brits, Owen and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Denzel’s detective partner, display fine New Yawk accents. It was entertaining, effective in the least ambitious way as a work of movie craftsmanship, but it was also nothing special–its main theme bandies about an attack on the privileges of the powerful that carries little weight because it’s so sweeping.

Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, and Clive Owen in Inside Man (2006)