You could drive a cross-town bus through the holes in the script for Spike Lee's stylish and engaging heist thriller. But the film compensates for its numerous lapses in logic with great pacing, snappy performances and a couple of nifty last-minute twists.
In his fourth collaboration with the director, Denzel Washington plays an NYPD detective who specializes in hostage situations. Because things didn't end happily the last time he saw action, and because a dark cloud of suspicion presently hovers over him ($140,000 in evidence is missing in one of his cases), Washington's character is a man with something to prove. "Bad guys, here I come!" he jokes, with barely containable glee, to his partner when robbers take control of a Manhattan bank -- along with 50 or so customers in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The number-one bad guy is played by Clive Owen. In addition to leading a crew disguised as industrial painters, his duties include looking into the camera and recounting key elements of the story at the picture's opening and close. One of the most out-of-left-field plot surprises in recent memory emerges from this framing device. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that his account of the caper's who, what, when, where and why leaves a whopping amount unexplained.
For example, it quickly becomes evident that this is not a run-of-the-mill bank robbery. Mountains of cash lie undisturbed in the building's open vault and the crew pays almost no attention to it. They show far more interest in the room where the bank's safety deposit boxes are located. And virtually all that interest is directed to a particular box belonging to the institution's founder and owner. It contains a document that would ruin the reputation of the prominent philanthropist (Christopher Plummer) if it were to become public. Nothing like a little Nazi collaboration in your past to free up your social calendar.
Among the many conundrums never addressed: Why would anyone preserve such a potentially damaging document rather than light an expensive cigar with it? How on Earth could Owen possibly have learned about this top-secret piece of paper? And what the heck is Jodie Foster doing in this movie?
Here's the thing: Lee sets the stage for the interplay between Washington and Owen with a savvy mix of procedural realism and Soderberg-hip criminal cool. Both hostage taker and negotiator are sharp, no-nonsense customers, and nothing about their interaction initially smacks of studio silliness. Then, out of the blue, we have Foster in a completely preposterous role taking the action in an unbelievable direction for purposes that are confounding and dispensable in equal measure.
We are not told what her character does for a living. All we know is that powerful people call her when they have a problem, and she proceeds to do shadowy things in expensive designer wear. Plummer rings her up and shares his concerns about his safety deposit box. The next thing you know, she's waltzing past Washington into the bank to conduct her own negotiations with the heavily armed Owen. And he doesn't even appear surprised to see her. Since the thief retains possession of the document, it's unclear why Plummer writes Foster a fat check a few minutes later. To say the least, this is not the film's finest half-hour.
Fortunately, the film's running time is 130 minutes, so, even factoring out the time wasted by Foster's gratuitous appearance, there's still a picture left over that's worth seeing. Washington is at the top of his game. You can sense the wheels turning in his character's head as he goes back and forth with Owen. He waits for just the right moment to initiate contact, acting entirely by instinct. When that moment arrives, he takes a surprising tack, employing humor and bluntness. "This isn't going to turn out well for you," he laughs into the phone. "You've seen Dog Day Afternoon."
Owen's performance is every bit as watchable. The actor creates a walking, talking question mark of a ringleader, one minute beating an uncooperative hostage savagely, the next shaking his head over a child's violent video game.
Lee squeezes more than suspense and white-knuckle thrills from the material. He succeeds in slipping in the occasional comment on post-9/11 race relations as well. When a hostage is sent out with a message tied around his neck, for example, an officer points a rifle at him and yells, "He's an Arab! Is that a bomb?" "I'm a Sikh," the confused fellow protests as he's pushed to the ground and stripped of his turban.
"I'm going to walk out the front door when I'm good and ready," Owen informs Washington at one point. The detective assumes he's joking. After all, cops are surrounding the building. Snipers watch from nearby rooftops. Police cameras peer into the bank's windows. He's not kidding. After all the heist films Hollywood has made, you might not think Inside Man could possibly have something up its sleeve that you've never seen in a heist film before. It does.