"Inside Man" stirs some very tasty flavors into its familiar bank robbery/hostage crisis plot, which helps conceal the modest portion of the central ingredient, suspense. A flashy cast, clever script and vibrant showcasing of New York City are strong plusses for Spike Lee's most mainstream studio venture, which Denzel Washington's name should propel to solid returns for Universal.

A thriller that aims to be different, “Inside Man” stirs some very tasty flavors into its familiar bank robbery/hostage crisis plot, which helps conceal the modest portion of the central ingredient, suspense. A flashy cast, clever script and vibrant showcasing of New York City as the ultimate melting pot are strong plusses for Spike Lee’s most mainstream studio venture, which Denzel Washington’s name should propel to solid returns for Universal.

No matter the diversity of his projects, one thing Lee has never been is a genre filmmaker. While his interests and instincts remain elsewhere, he does throw himself into the spirit of things here, briskly setting the lay of the land — the stately Manhattan Trust Bank in the Wall Street area — and efficiently presenting its takeover by a band of four masked and armed intruders led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen).

As Russell and his cohorts corral 50 hostages, dress them in identical baggy outfits and masks and roughly threaten them, it quickly becomes clear the ringleader is an unusually smart criminal. However, his motives and intentions — issues first-time scripter Russell Gewirtz deliberately evades as long as he can — remain unclear.

There are piles of money in the vault tantalizingly ripe for the picking, but the wily perp seems to have his mind on something else.

Under the circumstances, the detective in charge, Keith Frazier (Washington, sporting a thin moustache and near-shaven head), sees no alternative but to play a waiting game. In the doghouse at headquarters and assigned to the case with partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) only as a substitute, Frazier, in league with Emergency Services officer John Darius (Willem Dafoe), suppresses the urge to take any untoward action that could endanger the hostages, indulging only in innocuous schemes such as sneaking hidden microphones into the bank in pizza boxes.

To fill the time until Russell makes a move, Lee and Gewirtz begin layering the action with elements both germane and incidental. Snippets of post-crisis hostage interviews create the impression they got away unharmed, as did, evidently, the hold-up crew. These exchanges are often amusing, but introducing them so early in the proceedings reps a double-edge sword, as they inevitably reduce whatever tension had been generated up to then.

Then there are the machinations of the bank’s founder and chairman, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who enlists ambiguous high-end power-broker Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to monitor the sensitive contents of his personal safe-deposit box.

Revelations concerning these hidden items ultimately prove dramatically crucial. But while the substance of the secrets has topical validity, pic’s credibility is seriously compromised by the great unlikelihood that Case would allow such potentially damaging material to exist.

Still, Lee insures the substance of the film consists as much in its texture and details as its plot. It may seem like a predictable cliche, especially to the director’s detractors, that he so intently underlines the ethnicity of even the most minor characters; much is made of the rainbow brigade that constitutes the hostage group: the white woman who talks loudly on her cell phone; the young Sikh hostage who, when released, strenuously complains of being mistaken for an Arab; the glam Albanian sexpot who knows how to play her cards, and the young black hostage whose ultraviolent “Kill Dat Nigga” computer game gives pause even to Russell.

Lee makes a point of showing New York and, by extension, American society top to bottom, from politicos and power players in their extravagantly appointed lairs to drug-addled deadbeats like the teen brother of Frazier’s girlfriend. Mostly, of course, there are the working stiffs in the middle, including most of the hostages and the cops, who just try to get through each day.

“Dog Day Afternoon” serves as an acknowledged template here, but aside from the central bank hostage situation driven by unconventional reasons, the differences are more marked than the similarities; Sidney Lumet’s film was notable for grand theatrics and the spectacle of the media/law enforcement frenzy, two aspects “Inside Man” shies away from.

While far from the most compelling character Washington has played, Frazier is interesting enough, a savvy, confident guy alternately prudent and rash who hasn’t advanced professionally as far as he wants. He’d like to think he can outwit his crafty adversary, although only a long-distance mind-reader could deduce what Russell’s really up to.

Frazier’s sartorial selections, which include classy suits, the occasional bow tie and spiffy straw hat, command attention of their own. As the mastermind, Owen is commanding despite being hidden behind a mask much for the time, while Foster seems to be having fun with a change-of-pace role as the elegant, far-more-superior-than-thou intermediary.

With Matthew Libatique behind the camera for his second consecutive picture with Lee, rough-and-ready visuals are of a piece with those of the helmer’s previous pics. Terence Blanchard’s score tends to the grandiose, although some Bollywood rap interludes are quite catchy.

Inside Man

Production

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer production. Produced by Grazer. Executive producers, Daniel M. Rosenberg, Jon Kilik, Karen Kehela Sherwood, Kim Roth. Co-producer, Jonathan Filley. Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay, Russell Gewirtz.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Deluxe prints; widescreen), Matthew Libatique; editor, Barry Alexander Brown; music, Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; art director, Chris Shriver; set decorator, George DeTitta Jr.; costume designer, Donna Berwick; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), William Sarokin; supervising sound editor, Philip Stockton; assistant director, Mike Ellis; casting, Kim Taylor-Coleman. Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Los Angeles, March 14, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 128 MIN.

With

Detective Keith Frazier - Denzel Washington Dalton Russell - Clive Owen Madeline White - Jodie Foster Arthur Case - Christopher Plummer Capt. John Darius - Willem Dafoe Detective Bill Mitchell - Chiwetel Ejiofor
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