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'Inside Man' Jump Starts the Weekend


Director Spike Lee has never been one to make ordinary films, so it is surprising to see his name on Inside Man, a new bank robbery thriller. Still, MORNING EDITION and Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan says this is not your ordinary heist film.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

Inside Man is deft and satisfying entertainment. It's an elegant, expertly acted puzzler that is just off-base enough to keep us consistently involved. The broad outline of Inside Man couldn't be more familiar. We're talking perfect crime territory here, a classic cat-and-mouse encounter.

On one side is the criminal mastermind, played by Clive Owen. On the other is Denzel Washington's New York City cop, the detective charged with out-thinking the man with the master plan.

(Soundbite of Inside Man)

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (as Detective) All right, here's where we stand.

Mr. CLIVE OWEN (Actor): (as Criminal): I don't need your status report, Serpico. I tell you where things stand.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Sure, sure. I just meant...

Mr. OWEN: Here's where things stand. You're getting me what I asked you for. You'll have it ready in the time I gave you, or you'll sit by and you'll watch me do just what I said I would do. Clear?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Very clear. I'm trying to get you what you want.

TURAN: Inside Man, which also stars Jodie Foster, is not at all interested in being quite that formulaic. The script is especially good at doling out increasingly confounding information on a need-to-know basis. And director Lee, usually associated with provocative, socially relevant films, clearly has more than genre satisfactions on his mind.

Yes, Lee is perfectly capable of crisply handling nuts and bolts action scenes, but that is never going to be enough to hold his interest. So he's found ways to be slightly off the mark. Things like starting the film with the beautifully disorienting rhythms of Baliwood superstar composer A.R. Rahman.

(Soundbite of music)

TURAN: And the shot of Brooklyn's legendary Cyclone roller coaster under the opening credits is clearly telling us that this is going to be quite the wild ride.

He also makes political points around the films edges. He's managed to be himself without sacrificing the project's plausibility in the process. A Sikh hostage complains of police mistreatment and being called an Arab, and a boy is chided for playing a particularly brutal and insensitive video game. There's also the way that one of Inside Man's themes, the notion of systemic political corruption, has found a receptive audience with the filmmaker.

(Soundbite of Inside Man)

Mr. OWEN: What is it you want?

Ms. JODIE FOSTER (Actor): (as Madeleine White) Two minutes. A safety deposit box room. I just need to go to one box.

Mr. OWEN: Looking for this? This could be very embarrassing to your employer. He should have destroyed this along time ago. He didn't, so now it's mine. Now if the day ever comes when I have to stand before a judge and account for what I did here, you and your boss will do whatever it takes to help me.

TURAN: Finally, like any non-genre director, Lee is interested in people; what they look like, how they act. It's an interest that's got nothing to do with suspense, but when characters are made individual, it inevitably means that we worry more about them, which of course heightens tension.

With Jodie Foster especially good as an icy Manhattan power-broker, Inside Man's plot takes more twists and turns than the venerable Cyclone. Like everything else about this engrossing thriller, her performance is intended to keep the audience on its toes. And it does.

MONTAGNE: The movie is the Inside Man, directed by Spike Lee.

Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.