What's going down inside Manhattan Trust's Wall Street branch may or may not be the usual bank robbery, but "Inside Man," the crime drama that details those nefarious doings, is careful to keep its distance from your standard heist movie.
Smartly plotted by newcomer Russell Gewirtz and smoothly directed by, of all people, Spike Lee, "Inside Man" is a deft and satisfying entertainment, an elegant, expertly acted puzzler that is just off-base and out-of-the-ordinary enough to keep us consistently involved.
The broad outline of "Inside Man," of course, couldn't be more familiar. We're talking perfect-crime territory here, the classic cat-and-mouse encounter between criminal mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), the NYPD operative charged with outthinking the man with the master plan. Screenwriter Gewirtz, though, is not interested in doing anything quite that formulaic. Though its eye is always on the final showdown, his script is especially good at doling out confounding information on a need-to-know basis, providing a multitude of incidents to occupy our minds until all the pieces fall into place. This is one of the rare films Lee has directed without at minimum co-writing the script, and you can see why. Though he has made his own versions of standard Hollywood films before — witness the classic biopic "Malcolm X," also starring Washington — it's obvious that Lee is more at home with argumentative, provocative, socially relevant films than he is with this kind of genre material. Which turns out to be a good thing.
For though he is perfectly capable of crisply handling nuts-and-bolts action scenes like that of the quartet of robbers securing the bank and taking dozens of hostages, that is never going to be enough to hold Lee's interest.
So the director found ways to be slightly off the mark, from the minor — starting the film with the unmistakable and beautifully disorienting rhythms of Bollywood superstar composer A.R. Rahman — to the major, including the decision to use both Washington and costar Jodie Foster in roles that depart a bit from what they usually do. And what else could the shot of Brooklyn's legendary Cyclone roller coaster under the opening credits be telling us except that this is going to be quite the wild ride? Lee has also been able to make political points around the film's edges, to be himself without sacrificing the project's plausibility in the process. A Sikh hostage complains of police mistreatment and being called "an Arab." Two police officers have a racially charged conversation. A boy is chided for playing a particularly brutal and insensitive video game. Not to mention that one of "Inside Man's" themes, the notion of systemic political corruption, doubtless found a receptive audience with the filmmaker.
Finally, like any nongenre director, Lee is interested in people, in what they look like and how they act. It's an interest that exists outside of considerations of suspense, but when characters are made individual, it inevitably means that we worry more about them, which of course heightens tension.
One person who is cast exactly to type with excellent results is the redoubtable Owen, who opens the film by looking directly at the camera and saying, as only he can, "My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say. I choose my words carefully, and I never repeat myself." What Russell, no paragon of modesty, proceeds to tell us is that he's planned the perfect bank robbery. The film immediately shows him and his team, all dressed identically in painters' coveralls, swiftly taking over the bank in question and telling cowed hostages, "My friends and I are making a very large withdrawal. Anyone who gets in the way gets a bullet in the brain."
Charged with negotiating with the man is Washington's Det. Frazier and his partner, Bill Mitchell (the always convincing Chiwetel Ejiofor). Frazier, however, is not the superstar cop you might be expecting. He is a veteran detective second grade with the slightest hint of a paunch who got the assignment only because the department's top guy was on vacation.
At first the situation develops like any other bank robbery, with Russell eventually demanding the usual fully fueled jet ready to take him and his team out of town. But first the audience and then Frazier begin to sense through the actions of others that there are as yet unnamed factors in play.
The first hint of this comes when Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), Manhattan Trust's board chairman, is informed of the robbery and says, "Oh, dear God." He next calls Madeline White (a picture-stealing performance by Foster), who is the ultimate ice-princess power broker in a city of power brokers, and asks for her services.
From that point on, "Inside Man's" plot takes more twists and turns than the venerable Cyclone and includes the interesting technique of periodically flashing forward to police interrogations of the hostages after the siege is over. Like everything else about this engrossing thriller, it's a tactic intended to keep the audience on its toes, and it does.
MPAA rating: R for language and some violent images