The heist at the heart of Inside Man is brilliant, and so is the movie. It’s one of the most diabolically clever of all bank-robbery pictures, not just because it keeps us pinned to the edges of our seats wondering what’s going to happen next, but because it’s about something more (and arguably more sinister) than whether the bandit manages to make off with the loot. Here’s where I would ordinarily go on to call Inside Man a study in collective greed, in which all of the major characters are looking for the short road to success and where the real thieves may just as soon be those negotiating with the bank robbers as the robbers themselves. Only, there’s nothing studied about Inside Man. It’s a gripping, jugular entertainment that starts off wound-up and never winds down, and only much later do you realize the movie isn’t just playing the audience like a violin, it’s also saying something cunning about human nature and the price of success in the big city.

So, here’s what happens: A guy called Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) walks into a Lower Manhattan bank, knocks out the security cameras using infrared beams, rounds up everyone’s cell phones and proceeds to make all of the hostages dress up in the exact same painter’s uniforms and masks worn by him and his accomplices. The only thing he doesn’t do is lay a finger on the money — not one dollar of it. Enter detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), a hostage negotiator dispatched to take control of the scene, who soon finds that the scene may be taking control of him. His adversary is a formidable one, seemingly able to anticipate every one of Frazier’s moves and whose predictable demands — a bus to the airport and a jet waiting at his disposal — strike Frazier as but one more elaborate ruse. Then there’s the bank’s chairman of the board (Christopher Plummer), who shows up supposedly out of concern for the safety of his employees, followed closely by an icy power broker (Jodie Foster) who offers her “very special skills and complete discretion” to the highest bidders, and who seems quite concerned that, whatever else comes to pass, the contents of the chairman’s personal safety deposit box remain safely deposited. Even the mayor himself puts in an appearance, casually reminding Frazier that, if he plays ball, that little Internal Affairs investigation that’s been nagging at him might just up and disappear. Which is just about the point at which I set down my notepad and did exactly what Inside Man wants you to do — surrendered to its corkscrew twists and its blind-siding sleight-of-hand.

Inside Man was directed by Spike Lee from a terrific script by first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, and I doubt any other director could have made the movie in quite the same way. When Lee films the buildings of Lower Manhattan underneath Inside Man’s opening titles, he does so as if he were filming the Egyptian pyramids or some other towering monuments of an ancient civilization — everything feels monolithic and monumental. Then the first strains of Terence Blanchard’s big, brassy score appear on the soundtrack, and the cumulative effect is the promise that you’re in for something grand and operatic. And that’s exactly what Lee delivers. Inside Man is a genre film graced with the kind of character, personality and florid stylistic gestures that the great studio directors of the 1930s and ’40s deployed in order to enliven formula concepts, and at times the movie feels like a throwback to that era, with Gewirtz’s razor-sharp dialogue rattling about and Washington working his Panama hat as though it were Sam Spade’s fedora. Every scene in the movie is alert and lit up with vibrant details in a way that makes most Hollywood product seem utterly lazy by comparison. And the actors are electrifying — Washington and Owen may be the most silver-tongued cat and mouse to give chase to one another since Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau battled it out in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (the movie with which Inside Man has the strongest kinship) — and Foster bristles with the cool authority of someone who knows everyone else’s dirty little secrets.

If Inside Man isn’t the best movie Lee has done, it’s probably the most purely exciting and enjoyable, and the one least encumbered by the need to be the Next Important Film by America’s Most Important Black Filmmaker. That’s not to say that Inside Man is an apolitical film. Set and shot just a stone’s throw from where the World Trade Center once stood, it is, in part, like Lee’s earlier 25th Hour, a kind of symphony of post-9/11 New York, about people of all creeds and colors soldiering on, no matter that what they’re getting up to may be no good. There’s a scene here in which one of the bank’s freed hostages, a Sikh, is mistaken by the cops for an Arab and subjected to a torrent of racial epithets before unleashing his own rant about his own inability to so much as enter an airport without arousing suspicion. And by the time it’s over, Inside Man even ends up forming a curious dialogue with Steven Spielberg’s Munich, though to say exactly how would be to give far too much away. But whenever the movie whispers at becoming a sanctimonious message picture, Lee and Gewirtz deflate the possibility with some delicious comic punctuation (as when Frazier, after listening carefully to the Sikh’s rant, responds “I bet you can hail a cab, though”). There may be a larger conspiracy at work in Inside Man, and perhaps some agents acting on behalf of the greater human good, but for the characters front and center, the only way to get ahead in the world is by looking out for No. 1.

INSIDE MAN | Directed by SPIKE LEE | Written by RUSSELL GEWIRTZ | Produced by BRIAN GRAZER | Released by Universal | Citywide

LA Weekly