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Published: Friday, 3/24/2006

Movie review: Inside Man *****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Almost from the start in Inside Man you can tell the bad guys know what they're doing and the good guys can only play catch-up.

It sets you at ease: Ain't it the way of the world? The game is rigged. That part is fairly certain - but how? It's a question the ringleader of the bank robbery (Clive Owen) asks the audience: You know why he's doing this (the money), who is none of your business, the when is irrelevant because the plan is airtight. The only thing is, how?

"Therein lies the romp," he says.

In other words, the how is not that important, either. It's a vehicle for having fun. But the romp, incidentally, goes like this: A gang of thieves disguised as industrial painters bursts into a bank in lower Manhattan.

The thieves wear identical sunglasses, jumpsuits, and face masks. They take about 50 hostages and dress them in matching jumpsuits and face masks. They open the vaults and wait for New York City's finest to surround the building. It's one of those squat limestone fortresses with a foundation that looks 10 miles thick. No one is going anywhere.

The robbers begin to do puzzling things, move in secretive patterns, throw strange hand gestures. They seem to be in no great rush, and though up to this point nothing in Inside Man is especially original, it's cockeyed enough to leave hints of suspense: A hostage negotiator (Denzel Washington) and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) arrive.

They wait for their moment to make contact. When they do, they get nowhere. Arthur Chase (Christopher Plummer), the austere president of the bank, is extremely disturbed by events, personally haunted. You see it in his eyes. He hires a fixer, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), to cut a separate deal with the thieves.

Agendas appear clouded. Madeline - "Miss White," as everyone calls her - is sharp, dressed in stilettos and cream-colored suits, with the soothing voice of someone who, as she puts it, didn't get to where she is because she made enemies. What she does - that part I don't quite understand. But everyone here is ambivalent and a tad vague. Everyone has a reason. Who is bad, who is good, a normally clear-cut point, feels irrelevant.

Even Washington's Detective Frazier is under suspicion of pocketing $140,000 in drug money. Even better, the robber (Owen) begins to think Frazier is too quick to be a cop. So both dig in their heels.

"Don't get comfortable in here, sport," Washington tells him.

"Oh, the cable guy is coming on Tuesday," Owen counters.

Don't you love being blindsided by an unexpectedly great movie?

Spike Lee's Inside Man is an entertaining and undemanding little pleasure of a heist thriller, starring Washington doing what he does best (the casual strut of a leading man, always a hair from exploding in frustration) and Owen doing what he does best (smooth sleight of hand, always a hair from collapsing beneath his own self-satisfaction). The film opens today, but it feels 20 years in the making - maybe you read past the part where I said Spike Lee just made a heist thriller, and it's "entertaining," "undemanding."

Who knew we'd see the day?

For more than two decades Lee's led with craft and subversion, with a trumped-up pugnacity and abrasiveness (he's a brainy charmer in person), and a commitment to personal filmmaking.

I don't question his integrity, or even his pretense. The man backs it up and his failures (She Hate Me, Bamboozled, etc.) are more alive than a lot of directors' successes. But his integrity would enter a room before he did. At times it was big enough to crowd out the rest of the picture. It's nice to see a talented guy take a breath and relax. It suits him.

You wonder where Inside Man has been all this time, because the kind of breezy confidence Lee shows certainly has not been with him for a decade. If nothing else, it's a reminder he's one of America's best (and least understood) filmmakers.

It's as if he's at that Steven Soderbergh moment where, like Soderbergh with Ocean's Eleven, he decided to apply what he's good at to the least personal kind of picture he could he think of and wound up making one of his most personal. Lee's eccentricities are hard to smother, and they are all over Inside Man - in the prickly bits of New York City strife, in the darkly funny shards of racial abrasion that lend the film its backbeat.

What's different is rather than alienate an audience with harsh rhetoric or get up in viewers' craws with righteousness, Lee is happy to show an infectiously nutty heart, and that heart is New York City. It's urban life that puts a hop in his step and it's what he gravitates to here with fondness.

He refuses to let it leap off into Generic Thriller Land, even when the studio-ready cliches and mechanized rhythms of first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz's script suggest otherwise. He makes it clear he's not slumming and he does it by humanizing what's usually routine.

For example, the actors.

Washington and Foster face off. But their scenes barely go beyond a whisper. Lee puts them on the same level, and leaves us with a question rarely asked in pictures this impersonal, at least not since L.A. Confidential: Who are the biggest sellouts, the ones in power who trade their integrity to the highest bidder, or the ones without much power who give up their remaining scruples with every minor compromise? Lee is constantly asking the question, reframing it to the ways race and gender and, most important, one's bank account can factor in the answer.

Especially in New York.

I mentioned the way Lee gravitates to city life. Inside Man is riddled with plot holes, moments so vague no wise director would let a movie go out like that - unless he walks tall and establishes that his picture is not about what you think it is about. Lee's movie is not about a bank robbery. That's his hook. What's fun about his film is the snap of the city; what's great about it is how Lee sticks to goofy parenthetical bits until you can't wait for the next one. These moments, he says, are what movies set in New York never get, and so here they are:

A hostage is released. He is wearing a turban. The cops freak. "He's an Arab," they shout.

"I'm a Sikh, moron," he says.

The people behind the barricades. Anyone speak Albanian? A hand goes up. But the Albanian wants her parking tickets fixed before she'll help. These are New Yorkers, and they are paranoid and mouthy and compromised and terrific. I wish David Mamet's signature rat-a-tat dialogue were here, but maybe Lee doesn't need someone to tell him what he already knows: that a great movie's joys, like a great city, are not in the big picture but the odd streets no one expects.

"You're stalling!" Washington yells in Owen's face. "I know you are! You saw Dog Day Afternoon!"

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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