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Inside Man is Spike Lee’s most mainstream movie to date, but the marvelous thing is he didn’t sell out in the process. Even with its mega-powered stars and Hollywood-slick story, Inside Man is still most definitely a “Spike Lee Joint” made in New York.

Hamlet’s Rub

Dalton’s plan is to get what he came for then walk right out the front door
Dalton’s plan is to get what he came for then walk right out the front door

Unlike the typical bank heist flick, Inside Man isn’t about the money. Indeed, instead of representing the embodiment of dreams come true, at one point the bank’s bricks of bills are casually used as impromptu stools while the perps strategically await their next move. Part of the fun, then, is to figure out the true motivation behind Dalton Russell’s assault on Manhattan Trust.

Dalton (Clive Owen, Sin City) starts off by explaining directly to the camera the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of his mission. The How? Well, there’s the rub, he says.

Disguised as painters, Dalton and his gang raid the bank, lock the doors, and take 50 employees and customers hostage. Dalton’s plan is to get what he came for then walk right out the front door, regardless of the swarm of New York’s finest that have barricaded the entire block surrounding the bank.

What exactly is going on is a mystery through much of the movie – and the less a viewer knows about the storyline going in, the better. It’s a puzzle that, buoyed by an impeccable cast and Spike Lee doing what he does best, makes for a highly entertaining drama.

Unlike another recent NYPD-centered flick, 16 Blocks, which broadcast its warm-fuzzy destination in the early going and spat out one ludicrous situation after another, Inside Man is smart and engaging, particularly for those adept at mental gymnastics.

Manhattan Trust

Lee, working with a taut screenplay by first-timer Russell Gewirtz (also a New Yorker), takes full advantage of his beloved New York City and its denizens, in the process serving up a microcosm of life in the post-9/11 Big Apple. There are several million stories in New York these days and Inside Man features a few of the more compelling ones, all fleshed out by a top-notch cast.

Concurrent with Dalton’s mysterious bank invasion, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, The Hurricane) is facing charges of involvement with a $140,000 check-cashing scam. He’s also got his dream woman at home and she’s hot to trot for a wedding ring. In fear of losing his job as well as being fearful of commitment and its financial implications, Keith leaps at the opportunity to get out from behind his desk and crack the bank heist.

Then there’s Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer, Syriana), the founder of Manhattan Trust. He sold his soul to get to his rarefied lot in life, and he’s been trying to buy his soul back ever since. Naturally, Arthur’s concerned about his bank and the safety of his employees. But he’s also — more importantly — concerned about his own well-being and his private stash in the bank’s vault.

Arthur enlists the services of Madeline White (Jodie Foster, Flightplan), a “power broker” in every sense of the term, to assist in mitigating the damage done by the heist.

At the scene of the crime-in-progress, Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things) and Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) assist Keith in his efforts to free the hostages and bring the robbers into custody. While their roles are relatively minor, it’s always a pleasure to see Ejiofor and Dafoe on the big screen.

Gold Digger

Technically speaking, Inside Man is superb. Lee flexes his cinematic muscle while methodically, steadily revealing the story’s nuances. Flash forward interviews between the hostages and the detectives as they attempt to piece together the fineries of what transpired are filmed in dull tones while present tense scenes are in glorious full color.

References to Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon provide homage to Inside Man’s great cinematic predecessors and even the score by Terence Blanchard (Clockers) is reminiscent of those James Bond scenes of “high drama” further heightened by John Barry’s musical accompaniment.

Then there’s the humor. From Kanye West’s Gold Digger ringtone at an inopportune moment to several scenes of cultural diversity tinged with nervous humor, one doesn’t have to wait long before being reminded this is a Spike Lee Joint.

And the ending. Ah. The ending! It’s the kind that doesn’t happen very often; the audience gets to entertain for themselves the ultimate fate of the key characters. Yes. There are decisions to be made even after the end credits start to roll.

Inside Man is the kind of movie that keeps percolating well after the experience of watching the movie ends. In retrospect, the title, which at first blush seems generic, takes on a double meaning. After all, at its core, the movie is about what’s inside the hearts, minds, and souls of the men named Dalton, Keith, and Arthur.

Amid its scenes of cultural and economic differences, clashes, and tensions, Inside Man offers a nice, simple tidbit of truth that resounds in light of the main characters and their individual stories: Respect is the only currency.