Inside Man (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

For an hour or so, Inside Man looks like a heist thriller of uncommon suspense and ingenuity. It begins one morning in Manhattan, when a gang dressed in masks and painters' overalls walks into a bank and takes 50-odd hostages before going to work on the vault. Enter police detective Denzel Washington and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to conduct negotiations with the gang mastermind (Clive Owen), who seems to be at least two steps ahead of them.

Yet this act of daylight robbery is not all it seems. Why is the bank's owner (Christopher Plummer) so desperate to conceal the contents of a safe-deposit box that he hires a slick troubleshooter (Jodie Foster) to negotiate with the robbers? Why is the bank's loot of less interest to them than an antique document stamped with a swastika? And how come Spike Lee is directing this highly atypical joint?

The answer to this last question is that he probably needs a hit, though on closer inspection Lee's trademark - the street jive and jabber of New York's multiracial mix - is there, too, just more oblique. Race meets robbery: this could be Spike's Do the Wrong Thing. As long as first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz is concentrating on the cat-and-mouse game, the movie feels in command of its audience. But then a pesky subplot springs out of that safe-deposit box, driving a whole train of past misdeeds through the present tension. Instead of the elegant endgame of a heist thriller, such as The Taking of Pelham 123, we get a convoluted tale of retribution and redress. It's less Inside Man than Marathon Man, and the disappointment follows you all the way out the cinema.