Spike Lee thinks 'Inside' the box

Spike Lee's "Inside Man" begins with a close-up of Clive Owen addressing the audience. "Pay strict attention to what I say," he intones, "because I choose my words carefully, and I never repeat myself." Yes, sir. When Clive Owens is enunciating, you'd better be all ears.

It turns out that Owens's Dalton Russell is a bank robber, and his words are meant to be taken literally. In order to follow the convolutions of his self-proclaimed perfect crime, you need to keep continually focused. But even then, the movie, with its flashbacks and flashforwards, slips in and out of intelligibility.

"Inside Man," which was scripted by Russell Gewirtz, is not a model of storytelling, even though it is somewhat redeemed by its fresh take and trick ending.

Well, maybe not totally fresh. At one point, after Russell and his platoon have invaded the Wall Street branch of a worldwide bank and taken 50 people hostage, the NYPD hostage negotiator, Denzel Washington's Keith Frazier, makes a crack about "Dog Day Afternoon," and you think: Yes, I've seen this sort of thing before. Russell is demanding a jet to flee the country, and Frazier complains that that didn't even happen in the Al Pacino film. (But it did. It's just that the plan was foiled on the runway.)

Neither is the character of Frazier altogether fresh to the genre. Newly promoted, ambiguously mired in a corruption scandal, he's the generic NYPD hostage negotiator, worn and wily. When he realizes he's up against a criminal mastermind and not a blunderer, he becomes a bit more interesting. Frazier doesn't like to think of himself as case-hardened, even if everyone else around him is, and the battle of wits switches him into a higher gear. Washington enjoys breaking the mold. In a couple of scenes where Frazier believes he's bested his adversary, he brings a much-needed street energy to the part.

Coming after a long stretch of socially conscious movies, "The Inside Man" is Lee's most commercially oriented project to date. He hasn't had a hit in a long time, and he hasn't made a good movie in a long time, either. No doubt his admirers will regret the absence of any real social or racial bent in this film, but I was relieved. Lee's movies are so overwrought and argumentative, with characters who only serve as mouthpieces, that something like "The Inside Man" is welcome. He's a better filmmaker, if not idealogue, when he's playing it straight.

There are a few Spike Lee-isms that creep in, such as Frazier's interrogation of a turbaned Sikh hostage complaining of rough treatment. The scene has a goofy, improvisatory feel that suggests this is the kind of movie Lee wishes he was making. Mostly, though, the performances, except for Washington's, are reined in. Owen spends most of his time wearing a white cloth mask, which doesn't cut down on his diction in the least. Between this and Hugo Weaving's masked role in "V for Vendetta," aspiring actors may begin to question whether they need to spend all that money on glossy résumé photos.

Jodie Foster plays some kind of power broker to the stars, whose intellect is as severe as her wardrobe. Christopher Plummer plays the nefarious benefactor of her services, an entrepreneur and philanthropist with a whopping secret to hide. His previous experience playing Shakespeare's Iago must have come in handy here.

Even with these stars and this director, do we really need another bank robbery heist flick? Lee and his screenwriter pull off a nice switcheroo at the end, but there's nothing terribly dynamic about the way New York is used in this film. In Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon," which only looks better with the years, New York was as much a character in that film as its people. It was a movie that took its cue from the energy of the city. "The Inside Man" takes its cue mostly from other movies. Grade: B-

Rated R for language and some violent images.

Sex/Nudity: 3 instances of innuendo. Violence: 20 scenes. Profanity: 118 instances, mostly harsh. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 8 scenes of smoking and 2 with drinking.

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