Inside Man opens with a long shot of an old-fashioned roller coaster. The roller coaster, of course, is a familiar metaphor for the thriller, so the shot (accompanied, oddly, by a jaunty Bollywood number) reads like a promise of high-tension and a truly spectacular climax.
The movie certainly has its share of twists, but it never builds enough energy or momentum to be a roller coaster. The pleasure of Inside Man is the details, the quirks that make it a Spike Lee joint rather than a generic heist pic. This is a movie set squarely in New York. The cops banter about the distinction between Grand Central Station (post office) and Grand Central Terminal (train hub). A crowd of gawking onlookers inevitably yields an individual who recognizes a semi-obscure eastern European language. A Sikh man bitterly complains that his dark skin and turban lead people to mistake him for an Islamic terrorist.
As for the actual plot, Lee’s actors enliven it more than it deserves. Denzel Washington, collaborating with Lee for the fourth time, plays a laid-back hostage negotiator called in to deal with a team of masked criminals who have taken dozens of hostages at a downtown bank. Leading the heist is an unflappable Clive Owen, whose target might not be the vast reserves of cash one would expect of a bank robber. Complicating the matter is the elderly bank owner (Christopher Plummer), who seems a bit overeager to placate the thieves and who hires the shadowy Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to handle the job.
Washington and Owen crackle in their scenes together as Washington tries to determine what, exactly, Owen has planned. In one wry scene, Washington stresses the importance of staying calm, and Owen — in a cool, even tone with just a trace of humor — rhetorically asks whether he seems calm. Foster seems to relish the opportunity to play an amoral character, a refreshing change from her string of mothers desperately protecting their children. Her Machiavellian operative somehow manages to be creepier than the movie’s war criminal.
But despite the actors’ best efforts — and Lee’s directorial flair — Inside Man never gets moving. The third act, in particular, feels more like an endlessly repetitive epilogue than a climax, and the premise behind the heist seems more and more hole-ridden the longer you think about it.
But despite the shortcomings of its plot, the movie still has its moments of humor and insight along with one truly poignant scene. As terrified hostages leave the bank, the police have no way of knowing who is an innocent and who is a criminal, so they forcibly apprehend everyone in a frenzy of shouts, pushing young men and old women alike to the ground and binding their hands behind their backs. The inability to identify the enemies in our midst is a painfully contemporary issue, one that Lee underscores with dark colors, somber music and slow camera pans. The hostages are safe, yes, but they lose something in gaining that safety, and still no one knows who the criminals are.