Inside Man (2006) isn’t the kind of film you expect from Spike Lee, which is part of the pleasure. It’s a high concept heist thriller starring Clive Owen as the brains behind a bank robbery turned hostage situation and Denzel Washington as the presiding NYPD Detective on the scene, with Jodie Foster riding in as a power broker trying to manage the situation for unnamed folks with their own agenda. It doesn’t seem to play to his strengths yet it’s a perfect crucible for Spike to explore his pet themes of race and class in the lumpy melting pot of New York City and a great set-up for what he does best, tossing characters together and letting cultural opposites clash, argue and vent, not to solve issues but to air them.
But Spike also proves that he can execute a slick, effective genre piece, something he’d never attempted before this film, and this is a mindgame of a crime thriller that gets more intricate with every twist. It’s a great work of sleight of hand engineered by Owen’s calculating mastermind. Meanwhile, Spike fills the drama around it with terrific snapshots of New York characters, all with edges to them that suggest there’s more to their story that we’ll never find out.
We get a beat cop whose dialogue is full of offhanded slurs (“You think you can leave out the color commentary?”), a loud Brooklyn girl with a great chest who can’t keep her cell phone conversation down in the bank, a young black kid whose PSP has an absurdly violent ghetto gangster game on it, a Sikh identified loudly as “an Arab!” when he’s let out of the bank and assumed to be a Muslim by the cops, an old Jewish man with a yarmulke and a connection to the diamond business, and others that both fall into familiar stereotypes and defy them.
Spike gets excellent support from cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who mixes a handsome, formal style and an agitated handheld immediacy, and longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown, who revs the film up and brings it back down with his pacing.
It’s smart, it’s sly, it’s witty, and it keeps you riveted.
On VOD through Amazon Video and other services.