Spike Lee is working off borrowed inspiration in the bank-robbery caper Inside Man. Run a DNA check and you'll find the New York crime dramas that the great Sidney Lumet directed in the 1970s: Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and The Anderson Tapes. That said, Lee does satisfyingly well by the genre, letting his prickly social conscience pepper the plot without sacrificing the hot-buttered fun. The suspense crackles, the acting sizzles and the script, by promising first-timer Russell Gewirtz, keeps tossing surprises like grenades.
Denzel Washington energizes the movie as Keith Frazier, an NYPD hostage negotiator who'd like to eradicate a few spots on his record. He gets his chance when master thief Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and his three masked cronies invade the Wall Street branch of Manhattan Trust and threaten to kill fifty bank customers and employees unless the cops meet their demands. "Bad guys, here I come," says Keith, sparking to the challenge as he and his partner, Bill Mitchell (the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), set up shop outside the bank and bark orders at John Darius (Willem Dafoe), chief of the Emergency Services Unit.
So far, so familiar. Then it gets tricky. Spike being Spike, the people in the bank basement and the cops and media outside become a microcosm of racial, sexual and class resentments. Flash-forwards splinter the narrative. We see interviews with several hostages after they get released. Dalton faces the camera and tells us to "pay strict attention." The plot piles up more twists than a jumbo bag of pretzels.
No fair going into detail about Dalton's demands, except to say that they involve a secret deposit box, Nazis, diamonds, bank chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) and Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a terror in heels and a power suit who runs impossible errands for the impossibly rich. Before Case calls her in, Madeline has been clearing the way for Osama bin Laden's nephew to buy a Manhattan co-op. To get to Keith, Madeline bullies the mayor, who calls her "a magnificent cunt." When Keith demands to know why she needs to talk to Dalton, Madeline tells him the matter is "above his pay grade." Ouch.
After a series of roles as victim mothers (Flightplan, Panic Room), Foster has a ball playing a bitch on wheels. Her part is sketchily written, but Foster makes the lively most of it. She and Washington — Oscar winners way overqualified for this cat-and-mouse game — attack their verbal byplay with relish.
And watch the canny way that Owen, required to do a lot of acting behind a mask (shades of Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta), brings nuance and wit to the robbery ringmaster. He reacts in shock to a child playing a gory video game called Kill Dat Nigga and then turns ruthless himself in a split second. The scene in which he catches a hostage lying about a cell phone is a model of how to build and sustain tension.
Lee deserves props for orchestrating the action with a genuine appreciation for how those classic Seventies crime films worked. Inside Man may be a throwback, but in an era of flashy techno-crap like Firewall, it's a kick to watch a stripped-down suspense machine constructed by pros. The pulsating excitement here isn't a digital byproduct. You feel it in the pungent authenticity of the Manhattan locations, in the tightening grip of Barry Alexander Brown's editing and in the play of light and menacing shadow in the cinematography of Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream). The film stumbles over too many subplots, too much jangle in Terence Blanchard's score and too few chances for the blazing acting trio to mix it up. In his fourth film with Washington, Lee knows he's not reaching as high as Malcolm X or digging as deep as He Got Game. He also knows to trust his personal inside man. Washington has the kind of quality other actors would die for: unfakeable cool.