Howard Hawks' famous 1946 detective thriller The Big Sleep tells a story so convoluted that even its author, Raymond Chandler, doesn't know who committed one of its murders. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey leaves so many questions unanswered that Arthur C. Clarke had to write a novel to explain it.
Spike Lee is as good a filmmaker as Kubrick and a better one than Hawks. And yet, I doubt he intended Inside Man to enter their pantheon of confusion. It's not that you won't know exactly who does what and why after you've seen the movie (although it's possible). It's just that you won't know exactly who does what and why.
What? Wait. I'm not talking about the little whats and the little whys -- as in, what does the bank robber do (we see and we know), and why does he do it (he tells us). What we don't know is how he knew to do it in the first place. Nor do we ever really understand Madeline White who, like her name, seems vaguely familiar yet oddly like a blank page. (I sense the role was written for a man, although Jodie Foster, who plays Ms. White, has never been quite so lady-like).
Inside Man begins with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), the head of a team of bank robbers, looking us right in the eyes and telling us to pay attention because he doesn't like to repeat himself (later, he repeats himself). Then he answers the five W's of the heist he's about to perpetrate, a lecture he concludes with the most clichéd of whys: for the money, and "because I can." (I literally mouthed the words as he said them.)
This is one kind of film noir flourish in Inside Man, the kind we see in hard-boiled '40s films (such as The Big Sleep). Lee's other noir touch comes at the end, when Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), the hostage negotiator who more or less cracks the case, hunkers down with his lovely lay-dee to a strain of sexy jazz.
In between, it's Dog Day Afternoon Lite, minus the "Attica! Attica!" and the pre-operative transsexual, but almost as kinetic and intense. After Russell and his gang seize the bank, Frazier has to figure out what he's up to while satisfying his captain (Peter Gerety), the bank's owner (Christopher Plummer), another cop (Willem Dafoe) hungry for a piece of the action, and the shadowy Ms. White. She's a sort of diabolus ex machina whom the mayor wants to go inside the bank, talk with Russell, and make sure that Frazier follows her orders.
Except for the parts that don't make sense, this is pretty routine stuff. But then, after all these years, what heist plot isn't? Who won't figure out right away that nobody really got killed when the blood of a hostage splatters over the video monitor? And what else could the bank owner be hiding but his collaboration with the Nazis? I mean, c'mon: He's a rich old man with a safety-deposit box that he doesn't want anyone to open. He's not keeping his mistress in there, and we weren't born yesterday. Neither, apparently, was screenwriter Russell Gerwitz, who writes some acerbic and even occasionally droll dialogue, yet who's enough of a dweeb to name the bank robber after himself.
If it sounds like I didn't enjoy Inside Man -- well, join the pantheon of confusion. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot, right up to the place where I began to feel dicked. (Lee is too smart and too good a filmmaker to pull off a proper dicking.) The acting is superb, hard and unpretentious, and just when the plot begins to feel too familiar, something cranks it up a bit. Are there themes? Yes, of course there aren't. How about you can't escape a guilty conscience? Or the guilty will always be "punished" somehow? Or the guilty-and-rich always get to keep their money? Or it's OK for a moral thief to steal from an immoral one?
If Lee's heart is in anything here, it's in allowing a cagey black detective to kebab the story's corrupt white power-brokers and corporate snakes. There's also a grim set piece where the child hostage -- a pre-teen gang-banger wannabe who admires Russell for his criminal daring -- shows Russell his violent video game, which he plays because "like my man Fiddy says, get rich or die tryin'." (I hope Lee hasn't unwittingly revived that whole East Coast/West Coast thingy.)
It's wonderful, as always, watching Washington do what he does. He's an engrossing actor, and although Foster's minatory grin sometimes seems too transparently glib, there's a certain thrill in seeing these two stars go at it a little. There's also pleasure in watching Lee's thumbnails of some Big Apple character types and their 9/11 jitters. Like Do the Right Thing, this movie is about New York. It's just a different New York -- a richer one, because Lee is now a richer New Yorker.
After 30 minutes of Inside Man, we get our first flash forward: the interrogation of a hostage, post-heist, as Frazier and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) try to figure out if he was a hostage, or if he's maybe a perpetrator. These vignettes recur, and they build the book-rule anticipation: When will they question Russell, whom we know is behind it all? The answer is one of the twists in the somewhat hurried and banal climax to a flashy movie -- one that may actually have you going for a while.