- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

We remember when the phrase “a Spike Lee joint” meant something special.

The promising auteur behind “Do the Right Thing” slowly, sadly, has given way to the overreaching hack responsible for “Bamboozled” and “She Hate Me.”

The mighty Spike may have fallen, but he’s back in a big way with “Inside Man,” a combustible heist pic that can stand proudly next to “Dog Day Afternoon” without having to puff out its chest.

Freshman scribe Russell Gewirtz captures the Big Apple’s idiosyncrasies without skimping on the psychological slugfest between the bank robber (Clive Owen) and the plainclothes detective (Denzel Washington) out to stop him.

And Mr. Lee steps out of the way, with only a few snazzy camera tricks and some race-based exchanges to remind us who’s in charge.

An anonymous bank robber (Mr. Owen) and three accomplices dressed as painters lay siege to a bank in Manhattan’s financial district as the film opens. They round up both bank employees and customers alike, force them to don the same gray painters’ uniforms they’re wearing and corral them in the bank’s back chambers.

One of New York’s Finest spots trouble outside the bank and requests backup. The call goes to Detective Frazier (Mr. Washington, looking haggard but still imposing), who puts aside his own corruption scandal to take the case.

With his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the detective hurries to the scene, where the bank has been surrounded and a temporary command post has been set up under a uniformed tactical officer played by Willem Dafoe.

The robbers are demanding a jet to make their escape, but Detective Frazier questions how a crook who could stage such a slick robbery wouldn’t know how implausible that sounds.

The case gets more complicated when a mysterious fixer to the rich and famous named Madeline White (Jodie Foster) enters the equation at the behest of the bank’s chairman, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). Arthur wants Madeline to make sure a certain safety-deposit box remains safe, and she has to cash in all her favors to gain a face-to-face with Mr. Owen’s thief.

Said thief’s motivations lie at the heart of “Inside Man,” but even after the tricky resolution, we’re left nearly as befuddled as when we entered the theater.

Heist films can be their own worst enemy. Stretch out the hostage crisis too far and it strains credulity — and the audience’s patience. Here, Mr. Lee keeps our interest via several smart devices, from flash-forwards depicting hostage interviews to throwaway moments where passersby try to help police crack the case.

Mr. Owen wears a mask for most of the film, but it’s his face-to-face with Mr. Washington’s detective that makes the stakes personal, for both us and the characters themselves.

Mr. Lee’s films rarely tackle such conventional subject matter, but the director never feels handcuffed by the assignment. Instead, it’s liberating to watch Mr. Lee’s gifts for natural dialogue and exhilarating set pieces enlisted in the service of a superior suspense film.

Miss Foster appears equally uninhibited, even if her character could have used a few more scenes to justify her mysterious pull. What precisely does it say on her business card, anyway?

“Inside Man” won’t inspire a flurry of Op-Eds the way Mr. Lee’s past work sometimes has. Instead, it reminds us the No. 1 Knicks fan still got game.

***

TITLE: “Inside Man”

RATING: R (Adult language, violence and disturbing images)

CREDITS: Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Russell Gewirtz. Produced by Brian Grazer.

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes

WEB SITE: www.insideman.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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