With a cast like this it's difficult to go wrong, and, indeed, Lee has created a truly original film from various shopworn genre cliché, chief among them, the New York City bank heist/hostage standoff gone awry. As with all of Lee's films, there's much more going on beneath the surface than is immediately apparent. Inside Man
takes pointed and well-deserved jabs at everything from post-9/11 treatment of nonwhites to, ultimately, a scheming cabal of backlogged evils that, even a decade ago, would have seemed wholly fantastic (and very much in the realm of two other NYC thrillers: Marathon Man
and, to a lesser degree, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
) but now feel drastically less so. The inside man of the title is actually three men and one woman, all with variations on the name Steve, who, led by a silky smooth Owen, commandeer a Manhattan bank with the supposed notion of financial gain. It's not so cut and dried as all that, as Washington's hostage negotiator, Detective Keith Frazier, and his partner Detective Bill Mitchell (Ejoifor) slowly learn. Frazier, his career stalled in mid-stride by 140 grand gone missing from another case, is thrown this bone by his superior with the ultimatum: Don't Fuck Up. But even he's not sure if he's on the right track when the crooks demand a plane and food yet kill no hostages, as if they're biding their time, waiting for something more precious than money. That's exactly what they're doing. The audience is in on it, but screenwriter Russell Gewirtz's cunning, tight script doles out droplets of information at a painfully slow rate, which only increases the tension. It's a great, unique script (I can't wait to sit down and read it through) that upends genre conventions and is buoyed by a grimly calm performance from Plummer as the bank president and an initially irritating turn by Foster as a enigmatic go-to girl who apparently has more political sway than anyone else in the five boroughs, and just maybe beyond that, to Washington itself. In the midst of all the bank-heist hullabaloo, Lee does an amazing (but very Lee-like) thing: He comments, through various hostage characters, all well-delineated despite their minimal screen time, the very essence of the city post-9/11: Its culture-clashing, turbaned-and-yarmulkaed, unmelted stew of immigrants and naturals remain inextricably mixed within the great melting pot. That man with the foreign-sounding surname was born and bred in Brooklyn or Bed-Stuy, do or die. In Inside Man
(even the title is cagey), the robbers end up playing the cops like bull fiddles, with the unwitting assistance of the hostages, until Washington – in another shockingly good performance – isn't even sure what he's doing. The only imperative that still stands strong in Lee's post-9/11 world is the one that stands just as strong in the world outside the cineplex: If you want to find the bad guys, all you have to do, time and again, is follow the money.