Whilst it won't go down as one of Spike Lee's more artistic pieces of work, "Inside Man" proves not just a slick and solid thriller, but a great example of smart high-concept escapism. It's a film that wants only to engross and entertain an audience - and does so without speaking down to them or insulting their intelligence like so many studio thrillers have of late. The ultimate lack of a central point or strong character motives may undermine its rewatch value, but strong performances, believable characters and an interesting premise unfolding at a healthy pace keeps you compelled throughout.
Indeed, with its procedural nature and heavy focus on what's going on you could almost be forgiven for thinking this could be just another bank heist movie. However Lee's background combined with a superbly tight screenplay combine to constantly throw new and unexpected pleasures into the mix. For example, a time jump/flashback device used throughout could've been cliched, but this manages to not only justify its use but cleverly manipulate it to enhance the film's assorted twists and reveals. Similarly with its very heavy focus on police logistics and power plays between key people in various occupations across New York, the film still manages to slip in all sorts of quite effective little examinations of racial prejudice and multiculturalism in the modern day cultural melting pot of Manhattan. In one scene it even manages something that surprises the hell out of you - it turns a few second long glimpse at a "Grand Theft Auto" like video game into a scathing piece of social commentary. Despite a variety of characters of all sorts of shadings, performances are solid across the board. Washington as the cop seeking the truth can do this sort of role in his sleep, and yet here he's imbued with a slightly darker and more well-worn realistic edge than some of the more noble roles he's played in the past. The role of the bank robber is given several dimensions by Clive Owen who portrays him as a fascinating creature - a charming, brutal, surprisingly moral man with fierce intelligence who keeps his cards close to his chest at all times. Throught the film the character remains an anchor for the audience, a man who understands the game so well he chooses to play his own instead - always calm and two steps ahead of everyone else.
In contrast, Foster's power broker is a deliciously one-note villain of the moustache-twirling kind - a highly capable and opportunistic woman who knows how to the work the system to not only her client's advantage but her own. It's a character whose icy smiles and florally-delivered threats betray an intimidating strong amoral will that's very much capable of carrying out whatever she says she will do. Foster, looking more glamorous than she has in years, overdoes it a little at times with her gleeful smile but she carries the darker aspects of this 'enabler' quite well and its great to see her play something other than a distraught single mother again.
Smaller roles from the likes of Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor provide solid if unremarkable support, and a lot of small one or two scene speaking roles involving the assorted hostages and terrorists are superbly delivered and circle back into the plot in surprising ways. The various production aspects ranging from the cold but flashy cinematography, the very location-specific sets and props, and the well-controlled music clicks and hums along with polish, style, smarts, and freshness in a genre long thought mined out.
Indeed there's very few weaknesses here, though with such a strong setup and throughput, the inevitable denounment is a very mild letdown, even if the motives are simple and believable. Ultimately it is just pure escapism and has little point other than to engross and entertain so it does fall a little flat, its characters rich but never exactly growing with the story. At 129 minutes it also runs a tad on the long side. Still, those are simply minor quibbles about what truly is of the few real worthwhile films in early 2006. Its a movie that is not only brimming over with style, but one that's got substance too and understates its various strengths to the point that it resembles a studio-made thriller in shine only.