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By Pete Vonder Haar | March 25, 2006

Spike Lee apparently likes keeping a lower profile these days. No longer the angry young man that made “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing,” Lee has matured into a much subtler force behind the camera, content to let the story unfold before him without thrusting himself into the spotlight as well. In fact, if not for the understated (yet ever-present) “a Spike Lee joint” gracing the posters for his recent movies, you might not even realize films like “The 25th Hour” and “Inside Man” – his latest – were his “joints” at all. Then again, there are always a few giveaways: references to baseball, a jazz-heavy musical score, and numerous references to race and racial divisiveness.

All of which are to be had in “Inside Man.” At first blush, it seems like a classic heist film: a group of typically efficient thieves infiltrate the Manhattan Trust Bank, taking its employees and customers hostage. They issue demands, and it falls to Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) to negotiate with the gang’s leader, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). Frazier is sorting through his own problems, chief among them are potential criminal charges stemming from $140,000 in money missing from evidence. A successful end to the hostage crisis could get Frazier back in the Department’s good graces. The there’s another player named Madeline White (Jodie Foster), who has friends in high places and is acting in the interests of the bank’s Chairman (Christopher Plummer) to protect something of great value to him that he has stored in one of the bank’s safety deposit boxes.

Sounds like pretty standard stuff, and sure enough, the plot offers little in the way of real twists until the end. Where “Inside Man” somewhat separates itself from the formulaic is in Lee’s direction, which continuously veers from suspense to comedy to drama and back again, and also the expected pervasive racial overtones. The bank is Lee’s representation of New York City as the ultimate melting pot, with Jewish clients, Italian and Chinese customers, black security guards, a Sikh clerk, and just about everything in between. The cast’s racial makeup isn’t integral to the plot, but adds another dimension to the film.

The interaction between the characters is what really elevates “Inside Man.” Granted, throwing together a couple of multiple Oscar winners (Washington and Foster) and a one-time nominee who’ll be on the ballot again before long (Owen) isn’t a surefire recipe for success (“Crimson Tide,” anyone?), but the verbal sparring Frazier engages in with both White and Russell is fun to watch, and all three leads play off each other comfortably. Then again, the rest of the dialogue is also quite enjoyable, including a semantic debate among the surveillance team over a subway riddle, and a great exchange between Dalton and the son of a hostage concerning a video game.

The primary weakness is in the story itself, which at times seems like mere background for the snappy banter and knowing glances. A well-acted heist drama is still a heist drama, and there are only so many ways Lee and company can tap dance around the same thematic clichés. The emphasis on character interaction (there are only two or three moderate fight sequence) also means that “Inside Man” will probably disappoint those in search of a straight-up action movie. However, anyone willing to relax, let the characters chew the fat, and not think too hard (why the hell Plummer would keep what he had in the safety deposit box in the first place, for starters) are going to be in for a mostly agreeable experience.

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