Spike Lee returns to top form with “Inside Man”, a clever heist film that is well acted and brilliantly paced. Denzel Washington, in his fourth collaboration with Lee, stars as NYPD hostage negotiator Keith Frazier. He’s on the outs with the department after a large sum of cash goes missing after a recent bust. By chance, he’s called into duty when a team of robbers invade a lower Manhattan bank and take everyone prisoner. The bank robbers, clad in jumpsuits and masked, force the captives to wear disguises that match their own. It’s an ingenious ploy that prevents the police from differentiating anyone. The gang leader, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), is identified to the audience but remains a mystery to the police. Detective Frazier becomes suspicious when a mysterious woman, Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), shows up at the scene. She’s been given carte blanche by the mayor to resolve the situation. Frazier soon realizes that there’s something missing and this may not be a robbery after all.

The key to Inside Man’s success is the skillful execution of an extremely elaborate plot. The film jumps back and forth in time while continuously introducing new characters and story elements. There’s also the central theme of the bank robbery that is the over-arching storyline by which everything revolves. Spike Lee is able to incorporate all of these events without losing tension or interest. He does this by using different camera angles and film grains to shoot certain time frames. This way the audience subconsciously understands where they are by “look” of the film. Russell Gerwitz deserves credit for his highly calculated script, but Spike Lee gets the lion’s share for his adept visualization.

You can never go wrong with Denzel Washington and he certainly does not disappoint here. He is an actor that understands nuance. He loads his character with small details. The result is an affecting humanity that builds a real repoire with the audience. You actually care about his Detective Frazier. Clive Owen also gets high marks for his performance. He isn’t given as much to do, but has a commanding presence on screen. Jodie Foster plays her character a little too tightly, but that isn’t really a negative here. She is in a supporting role that serves a specific purpose in forwarding the plot.

Spike Lee puts an authoritative stamp on his films by injecting them with his social agenda. That might seem out of place for this big-budget thriller, but he carefully, and rather shrewdly, does it here. Lee addresses quite a few hot-button issues without preaching or steering the plot away. Lee’s work had taken a tremendous downturn with his last effort, the absolutely terrible “She Hate Me”. He redeems himself with this film and proves that he is still one of Hollywood’s most pertinent directors.

The payoff for Inside Man can only be enjoyed if you avoid spoilers. It’s actually worth the effort; so steer clear of all the commercials and trailers. Most films you can spot from a mile away, but this one had me guessing until the very end. It is a smart movie that respects its audience. Thrillers are rarely so well conceived; Inside Man is a must-see this weekend.

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