As Inside Man opens, a man stares into the camera in a too-small room. He speaks in clear, clipped tones. "My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself." And bang – as Clive Owen looks out from the screen, director Spike Lee sets the hook for one of the most satisfying pieces of grown-up entertainment big Hollywood's given us in a long time. Both Lee and his anti-hero spend the next 128 minutes playing us, and by the time they're done, we're glad they did.
Four painters show up at a bank in Manhattan's financial district. The bank doesn't really look like it needs painting, but that's okay; they're actually there to rob the place. They take out the surveillance cameras, round up the staff and customers and get everything under tight control in an eye blink. Then they tell the cops what they've done … and then they're in no hurry at all. NYPD Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) catches the case – and Frazier needs to put a win up on the board, since $140,000 in cash went missing from one of his busts recently and Internal Affairs is sniffing around. Frazier and his partner Mitchell (Chiwitel Ejiofor) head over to the scene, Frazier takes command of the police presence from Capt. Darius (Willem Dafoe) ... and soon comes to realize that the mystery men inside the bank are really calling all the shots.
When the bank's president (Christopher Plummer) is told of the robbery - and which branch specifically is being taken down - calls are made to Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a high-powered fixer armored in a perfectly tailored cream ensemble and a demeanor that's as cold, slick and hard as a frozen lake. Plummer doesn't want her to stop the robbery; that's in the NYPD's hands. What he wants is to make sure that one very specific item in the bank never, ever leaves it. …
Trouble inside the bank, trouble outside the bank: Frazier's having a bad day. What's making it worse is the ever-growing realization that these bank robbers have a very different plan than what the NYPD usually deals with … and that the robbers know the NYPD's usual plan inside and out. Inside Man isn't just a great heist film – and, let's get that straight from the jump, it's a great heist film – Inside Man is also a terrific New York movie, a loud and proud celebration of the city where 'Screw you!' is just another way of saying 'Hello.' As Frazier interviews the cop on the scene who called the robbery in – after one of the robbers poked a .357 in his face and told him they were robbing the bank – the flatfoot explains it's the second time he's ever had a gun shoved in his face; the first was a 12-year-old kid. Frazier's curious about that story: "What was that like?" The cop's got Noo Yawk nonchalance in spades: "Not one of my better days. …"
And the whole film's like that: When Frazier talks to the head robber and realizes that he's running a very different plan from bank robbing business-as-usual, he's quotably profane: "Last time I had my Johnson pulled that good, it cost me five bucks." (Dafoe's comeback is killer, too.) One hostage, in his post-heist interview, is asked about being held at gunpoint: "Were you scared?" "No, man – I'm from Brooklyn." A lot of critics are invoking Dog Day Afternoon when talking about Inside Man – no coincidence, since the script itself mentions Dog Day not once but twice – but the movie it's really following in the footsteps of is the 1974 Manhattan crime classic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Pelham was the subway-hijack flick that gave us Robert Shaw as a mastermind criminal and Walter Matthau as the dogged transit cop who has to stop him. Owen and Washington follow the Pelham playbook to a certain degree – Owen's cool, clipped British attitude versus Washington's blunt, brusque, dese-dem-dose New Yorkishness – and Foster's Satan-in-Armani Ms. Fixit adds a nice third element to the mix.
Inside Man's script is credited to Russel Gewirtz; it's his first script, and it's pretty tightly wound. There's a great mix of real hints and red herrings in every scene of the film – especially as we flash-forward from the day of the heist to a series of interviews with the bank's staff and customers after the fact, and learn that the hostages got out, but the case isn't closed. The heist itself is refreshingly crafted, as well – low-tech and high-tension, obscure as it happens and obvious in retrospect. There's no boring computer hacking here, no video-display screens showing e-money being shifted around – just cunning and digging and plotting and trickery, professionals at work making money the old fashioned way: Stealing it.
But even more than the stars or Gewirtz, it's Lee who makes this film. There are a few moments in Inside Man that feel a little slack – especially a conversation between Owen and a child hostage about bank robbing and violent media, and the final scene. There's also one huge plot hole involving police surveillance and the presence of the media – If you've bugged the bank, why play the transmission over loudspeakers within earshot of news crews? - but other than that, the script holds up, and the reason it holds up is Lee. Lee's dramas have always had a muscular kind of push to them, and it's fascinating to see him put everything he knows about cutting, shaping and driving a scene into the service of a 'simple' thriller. There's a political and moral undercurrent in Inside Man, but it heightens the tension of the film far more than it deepens the meaning of it.
Only four African-American directors have had films earn more than $100 million at the domestic box office – John Singleton, Tim Story, F. Gary Gray and Clark Johnson. With Inside Man, it's a safe bet that Lee will join that group. (I can't imagine Inside Man not being a box office hit, but as Mencken says, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.) And more to the point, he deserves to – Inside Man is a near-perfect piece of entertainment, where every scene pops on its own and also works as part of a complete whole. (Seriously, watch Inside Man carefully: The film's climax is spelled out in the first five minutes, if you know where to look.) I could talk at great length about the movie's pleasures – the smarts of it, the swagger it gets from three top actors giving their all to parts they could have played in their sleep, an ace supporting cast of well-known names and well-worn faces, the clockwork intricacy of the plot that never becomes overly elaborate – but in the New York spirit of the movie itself, I'll get right to the point: Go. Get the big drink. Get the popcorn. Settle back into the plushest seat you can find. Because when a piece of big-screen entertainment as good as Inside Man comes along, you should savor it.