Spike Lee's uneven but engrossing crime thriller "Inside Man" goes straight for the punch. An elegant Manhattan bank, filled with midday customers, is entered by four people in white painters' coveralls, with scarves and sunglasses concealing their faces. With a well-rehearsed efficiency, they disarm the security cameras, seal the doors, order the customers to the floor and just like that, the bank is under siege. But what do these four people want? And will hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) be able to stop them?
There's a sense of a ticking clock hanging over the action, as in so many heist movies, and Lee, whose output over the years has been wildly uneven (how could a filmmaker capable of a movie as good as "Do the Right Thing" make one as awful as his last film, "She Hate Me"?), turns out to have a knack for this kind of timing. "Inside Man" is easily the most Hollywood movie he's made, filled with big-name stars and propelled by the sort of flashy back-and-forth screenplay (by Russell Gewirtz) that practically issues invitations to find its plot holes. And while it at times loses its way, ultimately it's a serviceable thriller raised to a higher level by its talented cast.
Washington, as always, creates his character effortlessly, with his trademark breeziness a nice match with the more high-strung characters around him. His Frazier is never hurried; he knows the power of the appearance of calm. Clive Owen, as the ringleader of the burglars (and whose accent wanders across the Atlantic and back), crackles with barely contained anger; he's playing an enigma, and seems to relish it.
Jodie Foster, playing a ill-defined power broker with spike heels and a Birkin bag (I've no idea precisely what she does in her posh office, but it's obviously quite lucrative), does a nicely icy turn. Her character drops in and out of the movie, but she provides a spark whenever she's on screen, so much so that you wonder if the movie might have been more fun if she'd had Owen's role. (Somebody needs to cast Foster as a villain; she's got a delicious wickedness here that's barely tapped. And does anyone doubt that she could pull off a note-perfect heist?)
Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Melinda and Melinda") plays Frazier's more excitable, younger partner Mitchell. Thrilled by the assignment, he chirps, "It's the show!" And Christopher Plummer brings his mellifluous tones to the role of bank chairman Arthur Case, who turns out to have a Dark Secret (oh, you'll see it coming) of his own.
Lee moves these chess pieces around the board efficiently, keeping our interest until the disappointingly lifeless ending. (For a movie that starts with such a bang, it just seems to trickle off at the end.) And he fills the film with characters who suggest a crowded, complicated city: a Sikh hostage humiliated by the cops' removal of his turban; a child unfazed by the day's events ("I'm from Brooklyn.")
"Inside Man" is a potboiler, but an intriguing one; perhaps Lee should go Hollywood more often.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org