In the gloriously profane 1974 thriller The Taking Of Pelham One, Two, Three, four masked men take a New York subway train hostage and threaten to kill everyone if the city doesn't cough up a million dollars. The details of the plan are compelling—for one, how do these guys plan to get out from under ground?—but what makes the film memorable is the salty, irreverent attitude of those forced to negotiate with these thugs. At bottom, the film's message is that New York will go on being New York, no matter how much shit hits the fan. Though Spike Lee's sophisticated heist movie Inside Man assumes a much more classical form, at times evoking the talky chamber mysteries of Old Hollywood, the spirit of Pelham runs through it unmistakably. Here's another hostage situation and police standoff, this time in a crowded bank downtown, and yet life goes on: Conversations are peppered with jokes and small talk, the ethnic melting pot bubbles away, and the urgency of the situation is acknowledged but contained.
Denzel Washington always does his best work with Lee, and he's charming and in command as the unflappable detective put in charge of an unusual bank robbery attempt. Posing as painters in coveralls and white facemasks, thief Clive Owen and his accomplices seal off the doors, take roughly 50 customers and employees hostage, and force everyone to don the same outfit, so the good guys and bad guys all look the same. Owen demands two buses and a private jet to make his getaway, but Washington suspects a deeper agenda at play. His suspicions are confirmed when Jodie Foster, an operative working on behalf of the bank's philanthropic owner (Christopher Plummer), intervenes in the negotiations.
With its name cast and familiar trappings, Inside Man may come on like a conventional heist movie—even the title sounds as generic as a brown paper bag—but Lee's incapable of playing by the rules. At first, it takes some time to adjust to the film's peculiar rhythms, which are conspicuously loose and slack by genre standards, as if Lee has agreed to take on a Hollywood thriller just to perversely extract the thrills. Yet Washington's curiosity over Owen's methods and motivations soon becomes so fascinating that it hardly matters when the threat of danger and the promise of action dissipate almost immediately. With juicy supporting roles for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Willem Dafoe as Washington's fellow officers, the film works best when the characters are just sitting back and shooting the breeze, which is what they're doing much of the time. Here, puzzling out a robbery is more fun than stopping it.