Sometimes even the best of us have to eat, and no doubt that's why Spike Lee took the contract job of directing the bank-heist thriller "Inside Man." And he brings his own directorial rhythm to the film, which unlike both his best work - "Malcolm X," "Do the Right Thing," "He Got Game" - and his worst work - "Jungle Fever," "School Daze" - was not written by him but by new screenwriter Russell Gewirtz.
This is a film that reminds me of "The Usual Suspects," because things are not what they seem. Four robbers led by a masked Clive Owen enter the Wall Street branch of a big bank, take everyone inside hostage, and set out their demands to NYPD hostage negotiator Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his assistant Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They want a getaway plane or they'll start killing the hostages. Except maybe they don't really want that plane, and maybe they won't start killing the hostages. Or maybe they will.
The hostages are scared, Detective Frazier is confused, and then the bank's chairman of the board (Christopher Plummer) calls in little Ms. Fixit Jodie Foster, because it appears he's got something in his own safe deposit box there at the bank that no one should ever see, and somehow she knows how to keep the lid on, so to speak.
That's as far as I'll go with the plot, most of which is revealed in the trailer anyway. The film generates a good deal of excitement and suspense, since we're as confused as Detective Frazier and the script lets us learn only as much as he knows, and only when he learns it himself. Lee knows how to cut for tension, and his lead actors are expert, though Christopher Plummer's one-note, over-enunciated delivery has long since gotten on my nerves. Lee makes a small but annoying mistake in his casting of New York Jews among the hostages; they speak like old-fashioned caricatures instead of human beings; he seems not to have an ear for Yiddishisms. (Note to Mr. Lee: If you're not going to cast real New York Jews, at least talk to the shiksa Meryl Streep, who got Emma Goldman just right in "Angels in America.")
I must confess that after one viewing of "Inside Man" I'm still not quite sure about just who did what to whom, to say nothing of why, other than that everyone is out to get something for him- or herself. But don't worry; it's only an entertainment, and the three stars - Washington, Owen and Foster - are so good at their jobs that you should just sit back and enjoy watching them at the top of their form. And when the reveal comes at the end, you'll definitely have something to talk about with your seatmate. It's nice to see Mr. Lee back in business again.