20 March 2006 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

"Inside Man" is the dull title of a crackerjack crime thriller that also is the most commercial movie Spike Lee has directed.

Everything clicks. It has a solid, substantial marquee cast in Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster; a cagey, even at times -- for a thriller -- thoughtful screenplay by Russell Gewirtz; and a production beautifully calibrated for its story and stars. This is the mother lode all action/suspense directors search for and Lee, who usually doesn't work in that genre, has hit it.

Boxoffice is bound to be strong, but can be even stronger if Universal's marketing and promotions successfully convince a broad spectrum of moviegoers that this is their movie. "Inside Man" takes material familiar to the point of triteness -- a bank heist, a hostage standoff and corruption New York-style, elements that have an almost nostalgic 1970s glow -- then turns everything on its head so the movie actually ends up saying something about American culture in 2006.

Without pushing things too far, "Inside Man" is the anti-"Crash" movie. Not that the film has no racial tensions and occasional flashes of prejudice, but "Inside Man" ultimately embraces the enormous ethnic and cultural diversity that is New York and by extension America. It even is a key plot point that in any give street of Manhattan you can broadcast a baffling language and someone is bound to know that language. Someone does.

The setup is indeed familiar enough that Lee and Gewirtz -- what a writing debut! -- actually rush through it. Four bad guys -- OK, it's really three guys and a girl -- take over a Manhattan branch bank disguised as painters. They hold about 50 people hostage. The NYPD gathers. Hostage negotiators Keith Frazier (Washington), who is under the cloud of a corruption scandal, and partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejoifor) arrive on the scene. Emergency Services Unit Capt. John Darius (Willem Dafoe) bristles in a fit of jurisdictional pride and then the siege begins.

Only nothing goes as expected -- either for a bank heist or a bank heist movie. The head robber, Clive Owen's Dalton Russell, is a character at least as old as Alan Rickman's Eurotrash villain in "Die Hard", but this guy is somehow different: Unusually cool and calm, he is fully in control of the situation as he keeps a step or even a step and a half ahead of Frazier at all times. His gang blinds the bank's closed-circuit cameras, then force the hostages to dress in coverall outfits and facial disguises so police cannot tell the difference between hostage and hostage taker.

There is another perplexing element: The bank's board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) clearly is more concerned about certain items in the safety deposit vault than in the lives of the hostages. So he hires slick, amoral power broker Madeline White (Foster) to handle very delicate negotiations with the New York mayor, Frazier and the hostage ringleader to protect his "interests."

For all the rising tension, beautifully orchestrated by Lee, Gewirtz leaves plenty of "air" in his story. Meaning, spaces to further develop characters or themes -- some an end to themselves and others that will pay off later. Example: An interchange between Dalton and a young black boy, who is his hostage, regarding the boy's super-violent pocket video game, in which a gangsta hero shoots his way through an urban environment, inspires moral indignation in the old-school thief. Seemingly fringe characters also have the encouraging habit of abruptly becoming integral to the plot or the conveyors of sharp observations about current American culture.

In the end, this "air" turns out to be more than air. There is an agenda within this intricately plotted, witty crime thriller. Helping Lee, whose direction has never been more astute, realize the script's high ambition is production designer Wynn Thomas, who keeps a claustrophobic experience feeling almost expansive; cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who makes things gritty but with dark, saturated, burnished tones that are never quite real; and Terence Blanchard's musical score, which becomes almost a character in itself, commenting on situations, holding back for others, then swelling expressively when circumstances warrant.

The film is even hip enough to open with "Chaiyya Chaiyya", one of the biggest Bollywood hits last year, then close with the same song remixed with rap. Very cool.

INSIDE MAN

Universal Pictures

Imagine Entertainment

Credits:

Director: Spike Lee

Screenwriter: Russell Gewirtz

Producer: Brian Grazer

Executive producers: Daniel M. Rosenberg, Jon Kilik, Karen Kehela Sherwood, Kim Roth

Director of photography: Matthew Libatique

Production designer: Wynn Thomas

Music: Terence Blanchard

Co-producer: Jonathan Filley

Costumes: Donna Berwick

Editor: Barry Alexander Brown

Cast:

Keith Frazier: Denzel Washington

Dalton Russell: Clive Owen

Madeline White: Jodie Foster

Arthur Case: Christopher Plummer

John Darius: Willem Dafoe

Bill Mitchell: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Steve Carlos: Andres Gomez

Stevie: Kim Director

Steve-O: James Ransone

MPAA rating R

Running time -- 128 minutes


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