Director Spike Lee shoots and scores with Inside Man, a clever bank heist movie that jazzes up the stale, overdone genre. Lee passes the screenwriting baton to talented newcomer Russell Gewirtz, who adds enough twists and turns to keep the movie breezing along without a clear direction of where it’s headed. Aided by a top-notch cast including Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster, Inside Man is a witty, cat-and-mouse thriller loaded with charisma and nuance.
The story opens with Dalton Russell (Owen) telling the camera about committing the perfect bank robbery. Flash back to Manhattan Trust Bank, where he and three burglars—dressed as painters in silly masks and shades—wave their guns around and take 50 terrified people hostage, as crowds of spectators gather outside. Cocky detective Keith Frazier (Washington) is on the case along with his sidekick (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to smooth out the situation, which proves to be more challenging than they expected.
Russell is not your average bank robber, and his next move cannot be foreshadowed. Beyond the money, his goal is to distract the cops with mind games and send them on wild goose chases, grinning as they inevitably run themselves into another dead end. Although he is armed and threatens to unload lead on the hostages if his demands aren’t met, his behavior suggests otherwise. When his hostages disobey him, including a Jewish grandma who refuses to strip and put on the required painter gear, she is not executed for kvetching. Instead, she finds herself put safely in a room with the other rebels, as they all await pizza that has been ordered for them.
A third party closely monitoring the robbery is Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the founder of Manhattan Trust, trying to keep a dark secret hidden inside the bank and away from the papers. He hires Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a power broker who makes a fortune working around the law, who comes into play as another headache for both the cops and the robbers. Thankfully, Foster is given a role where she dresses nicely and doesn’t have hysterical outbursts; in other words, something Julianne Moore would have immediately turned down.
The world does not need another bank hold-up movie, and Spike Lee makes sure to deliver something better. While the robbery is the central plotline, there are so many intriguing characters and quality interactions, that categorizing it simply as a heist flick is unfair. The leads are great, but its the side characters that prove to be the biggest scene-stealers. Most notable is a tough little black kid who idolizes 50 Cent, and plays a portable, appalling violent videogame that makes “Grand Theft Auto” look like “Curious George”. Everything that comes out of his mouth is hilarious, especially when he congratulates Russell during the bank robbery, telling him sympathetically, “Hey, you gotta get paid too”.
Inside Man is a sarcasm-packed thriller that remains interesting because of all the talent involved. It’s a refreshing movie that gets your adrenaline racing and continues the potential Spike Lee reignited with 25th Hour four years ago. While not every twist in the script works, there are enough goods to keep its shortcomings from mattering too heavily. During these dreary cinematic months, Inside Man is prime entertainment and a much-needed bang for your buck.