As Inside Man busts open, some guys dressed like industrial painters descend on a New York bank, one of those somber marble edifices built to last as long as the dollar rules. The intruders stride in wearing sunglasses, scarflike masks, worker jumpsuits, and painter caps. Then they hold up the place at gunpoint, forcing some 50 male and female hostages to don identity-blurring jumpsuits and sunglasses, too. The gang, led by stern ringleader Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), appear to be bank robbers in search of what's in the vault. But they're in no hurry to take the money and run. Instead, as Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) discovers when he begins negotiations with Russell, the cat-and-mouse head game is, to Russell, its own reward.
Frazier's a complicated cat himself, ambivalent about proposing to his girl, ambivalent about clearing his name in a corruption charge, an angry black cop dressed like a dandy in a white-power world. The bank chairman, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), a suave, old-world type, is a conundrum too he's suspiciously worried about the contents of one safe-deposit box. And to that end, mid-hostage-crisis, Case hires Madeline White (Jodie Foster), an elegant (and, wouldn't you know, complicated) corporate ''fixer,'' to broker a deal that would leave that particular box off Russell's must-have list. Foster gleefully musters her throatiest ballbuster voice as she heel-toes her way around in expensive cream-colored suits and fierce stilettos, a siren of shady dealing who'd do well selling secrets on 24.
There's mystery to what Madeline is really up to, but that's just one among many in Russell Gewirtz's grabber of a first script: Everyone's complicated in this jam-packed, spring-loaded contraption, everyone's sneaky, compromised, clever, nervous, mouthy, opinionated, and New Yorky. Even the hostages are choice there's a young woman who gabs obnoxiously into her cell phone, the little black kid playing a jolly-horrid videogame called Kill Dat Nigga, an old rabbi worried about diamonds, an elderly woman who would rather be shot than strip to her undies in public. Everyone's prime material, in other words, for Spike Lee to fashion his first mainstream, bring-in-the-box-office adventure.
Inside Man is a hybrid of studio action pic and Spike Lee joint. Or else it's a cross between a 2006 Spike Lee joint and a 1970s-style movie indictment of urban unease. It's also a blend of Dog Day Afternoon and a Foster tough-lady thriller; of a Foster thriller and a smooth Owen sleight-of-hand drama; and of an Owen caper and a Washington out-for-justice pic. Some unwieldy hybrid and yet the gamble pays off. Everyone gets a piece of the deal. Everyone gets a piece of the city with the brutally changed skyline, in all its new paranoia.
Gewirtz's script spells out the power snarls between Frazier and his police captain (Willem Dafoe) and between Frazier and Russell (more of a concept than a character despite Owen's energetic efforts at creating dimension). But it's Lee whose eye seizes the continuously recalibrated details of race, gender, culture, and socioeconomic power with which New Yorkers have sized one another up with even more anxiety since the towers fell. A Sikh hostage is distraught and insulted when, under interrogation, his turban is taken from him. (He's fed up with being mistaken for an Arab.) An Albanian woman, brought in by the cops to translate chatter picked up by surveillance, barters her bilingual abilities for amnesty from a shopping bag filled with parking tickets. The videogame-playing kid tells Russell, ''I'm not scared. I'm from Brooklyn.''
Lee, also from Brooklyn, hangs on to some old tricks that have outstayed their welcome. One favored camera tic, in which a fella appears to float while the world zooms behind him, tells us nothing when turned on Plummer's bank mogul. The jazzish score, by Lee's music man, Terence Blanchard, is typically intrusive. But the mood is right, the twists are new. And with one casting inspiration, Inside Man furthers the rising stardom of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity). Playing Frazier's detective partner with perfect New York diction, the magnetic British-born actor raises Washington's game in every scene the two share. (Denzel looms large, but his energy level also fluctuates.) In a movie about zigging and zagging, that extra boost is as necessary to negotiations as the pizzas delivered to hungry hostages in New York-flavored movies the world over.