March is a little on the early side for a Hollywood studio to release a good movie (some years you have to wait until May) but hey, life is full of surprises. "Inside Man," a bank-heist thriller with a tricky, nothing-is-as-it-seems playfulness, is the kind of solid, mass-appeal entertainment that Hollywood is supposed to knock out in its sleep but rarely pulls off even when wide awake. As unexpected as some of its plot twists is the fact that this unapologetic genre movie was directed by Spike Lee, who has never sold himself as Mr. Entertainment. But here it is, a Spike Lee joint that's downright fun.
"Inside Man" was written by first-timer Russell Gewirtz, and though it has its share of holes that become visible when all the dust settles, it keeps you in a state of cheerful suspense while it's unfolding. The question this robbery movie raises is not your standard "Whodunit?" nor even "How did he do it?" nor even really "Will he get away with it?" It's something a little more unusual: "What the hell is he up to?"
The he in question is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), a cool, very smart customer who informs us from his cell at the start of the movie that he has planned the perfect crime. With a team disguised as industrial painters, he storms a downtown New York bank, takes everyone hostage, knocks out the cameras and informs the two hostage negotiators--Denzel Washington's Det. Keith Frazier and his partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor)--that a jet must be delivered for his escape.
Seems straightforward, but what's he gonna do with a jet, and doesn't he know nobody ever gets a plane in a bank-robbery negotiation? And why is he making his hostages strip, and having them dress like his co-conspirators, making it impossible to tell who's a captor and who's a captive? And why is the venerable head of the bank (a fine but predictably cast Christopher Plummer) so concerned about the contents of his safety-deposit box that he enlists the city's most ferociously well-connected Ms. Fix-it (a deliciously coldblooded Jodie Foster) to see that nobody knows anything about it?
There's a good reason Lee was hired for this job: his deep-rooted sense of the New York melting pot. What keeps "Inside Man" from becoming just another standard crime drama is its willingness to digress, to become a kind of sociological comedy of manners. The digressions, far from dissipating the tension, add to it: the criminal mastermind is using diversions to keep Washington and the cops guessing, much as the moviemakers use them to keep us guessing. There's a funny interlude where the detectives try to discover what language is being spoken on a tape by the thieves, which leads to a wonderful cameo by a foxy Albani-an who's willing to translate if she can get her parking tickets fixed. Lee is alert to the rage of the Sikh bank worker who's sick of being mistaken for an Arab, to the power struggles between Washington's second-tier detective and Willem Dafoe's police captain, to the irony of Owen's crook being shocked by the ultraviolent, racist videogame a young black Brooklyn boy is playing. The movie crackles with the serio-comic tension of thin-skinned New Yorkers thrown together in a crisis. The three stars are in top form, and they're backed up by a big motley supporting cast that jostles and kvetches and bargains and explodes with all the juiciness you'd expect from a Big Apple crowd on a dog day afternoon.