In the first shot of Spike Lee's latest, Inside Man, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) stares straight into the camera and tells us how it's going to be: "Recently," he says, calmly and forcefully, "I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery."
If the very first scene in a film implies that a perfect bank robbery is going to take place—and especially if it does so with a messenger as confident as Russell—it had best deliver. Fortunately, Inside Man does—and while the film's not perfect, it does feature an inspired bank robbery, plus enough solid, clever twists to make it one of the most enjoyable thrillers in recent memory.
As a filmmaker, Lee's always been unpredictable in his choice of projects, and this film's genre-bound purpose is no less surprising—Inside Man, at its core, is little more than a cool, entertaining heist film that doubles as a mystery. The main focus is on Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, as poised, determined, and likeable as ever) as he tries to figure out why Russell and his associates have seized a Manhattan bank, taken hostages, and are making outrageous demands—Frazier knows that somewhere beneath Russell's crime, something's not quite right.
For the majority of its running time, Inside Man is tense and focused; first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz's script knows exactly what it's doing and wastes little time doing it. There are a few missteps—a couple of cardboard-cutout characters, a hammy backstory, Terence Blanchard's goofy score—but largely, the film's made up of well-conceived kicks and twists. And with a fine supporting cast—Christopher Plummer, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor—the film retains its sure footing even when intense, witty lines of dialogue aren't being thrown back and forth between Owen and Washington. By the end credits, there's not much that's profound about Inside Man (the closest Lee gets to any sort of social statement is giving a nebbish white guy a Kanye ringtone), but there is plenty that's smart, sharp, and fun. Sometimes, that's more than enough.