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‘Inside Man’ is a successful caper film

Spike Lee is back with his best film in years
Film Title: Inside Man.
Clever bank robber Dalton Russell (CLIVE OWEN) stands amidst the cash in \"Inside Man\", a tense hostage drama from Director Spike Lee. \"Inside Man\" will be released in theaters on March 24, 2006.David Lee / Universal Studios

Spike Lee’s career has needed a course correction for some time now. “Inside Man” may be just the script to do the trick.

Clever and commercial, with juicy roles for Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer and Jodie Foster, it’s the kind of thriller that tricks you without making you feel you’ve been had. You may even feel compelled to see it again and retrace your steps.

The screenplay is the work of a first-timer, Russell Gerwitz, but it feels like the creation of a seasoned pro. While the opening reels suggest that it’s just another bank-heist tale, nothing here is what it seems. If you were stimulated rather than put off by the complications and narrative twists of  “Syriana” or “The Usual Suspects,” you’ll feel right at home here.

Owen plays the brains behind the heist, who is pretty sure he’s worked out the perfect crime. He and his gang take over a Manhattan bank, picking up dozens of hostages along the way and appearing to raid the vaults. But something is not quite routine about this operation. Do they really want money, or is it something else?

While the maybe-robbery is unfolding, the movie flashes forward to bleached-out scenes of the hostages being examined and intimidated by an apparently compromised negotiator (Washington), who spends a lot of cellphone time promising to get back to his sexually frustrated girlfriend. The hostages appear to be innocents caught up in the chaos, but could some of them be part of Owen’s team?

Meanwhile, the bank’s chairman of the board (Plummer) worries that the robbers will find his safe-deposit box, which contains material of an extremely sensitive nature. To protect himself, he hires an enigmatic power broker (Foster), who is chummy with the mayor and appears to have access to everyone who’s anyone in New York.

Plummer is just as wonderfully creepy here as he was in “Syriana.” Washington and Owen, clearly enjoying themselves, warm to the cat-and-mouse game their characters play throughout the movie. Only Willem Dafoe, as an emergency-services specialist, seems underutilized. 

It’s great to see Foster playing something other than a terrorized mother for a change (please, no more movies like “Flight Plan” and “Panic Room,” which threatened to turn this brilliant actress into a middle-aged scream queen). Her character in “Inside Man” is eerily professional and self-possessed; she’s also quite funny, especially when she’s trading stiletto-sharp quips with Plummer.

While this may not be a typical “Spike Lee Joint” (as Lee calls all of his movies), it’s more satisfying than anything he’s done in years. Not that it’s unrecognizable. With its showy, dreamy cinematography, its Terence Blanchard score and Barry Alexander Brown’s sharp editing tricks, “Inside Man” is clearly Lee’s work.

But there’s a respect for storytelling here, and an embrace of narrative discipline, that seems entirely and refreshingly new. If he seemed to lose his way in such failed (if personal) experiments as “Bamboozled” and “The 25th Hour,” Lee is back on track this time.