MOVIE REVIEW- Career spike: Lee's the real 'Inside Man'

You're in line at the bank. Armed thugs lock the doors and scream at everyone to "Get down on the f**king floor!" If this were anywhere but New York it might seem unusual.

Then again, it's Spike Lee's New York, so anything can happen; and most of it does before Inside Man is over. Homage is paid to Dog Day Afternoon, the king of New York bank-robbery-with-hostages movies, but that's just a fraction of what's on Spike's mind.

Before pulling a Hugo Weaving, and disappearing behind a mask for half the movie, Clive Owen introduces himself as Dalton Russell and promises to tell us the "how" behind his "perfect bank robbery."

Some 50 hostages– about half of them bank employees– are forced to change into dark gray coveralls with white face masks so they'll be visually indistinguishable from their four captors.

The police spring into action. Capt. John Darius (Willem Dafoe) sets up a command post outside the bank but soon finds himself outranked by Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner, Det. Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Darius wants to send in the SWAT team, but Frazier would rather stall as long as no hostages are being hurt, to give the bank robbers time to sweat.

The perps demand two buses and a plane by 9pm or they'll start killing one hostage an hour.

As tension mounts, the action is occasionally interrupted for scenes of Frazier and Mitchell interrogating released "hostages," some of whom may actually have been the captors. One of the film's cleverest devices is to show alternate scenarios of what might happen when Darius' assault team goes into the bank.

But there's another story being played out at higher levels. Jodie Foster plays Madeline White, who's best described as a "power broker." She not only knows anyone who is anyone, she knows their dirty little secrets as well. She's done enough favors for them that they're indebted to her, even though they've paid through the nose.

We get an idea of how she operates when the besieged bank's founder, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), seeks her help in recovering his safe deposit box from the bank, or at least making sure its incriminating contents never see the light of day. With the help of the mayor, she gets to Frazier, promising to help his career in return for cooperation, and he gets her into the bank to meet Russell. She has better luck negotiating with him than Frazier does.

Inside Man isn't over, even when it seems to be over. There are still several surprises and ironies ahead. One suspects the ending was compromised for box-office reasons, but the real ending that seems inevitable could occur at any moment after the fadeout. (I wouldn't be surprised to find an alternate ending on the DVD.)

The script by Russell Gewirtz is a brilliant mix of the familiar and the innovative, with enough humor to relieve the tension without breaking it. For instance, when a Sikh complains of always being subjected to "random searches" at airports, Frazier quips, "But at least you can catch a cab."

Washington gives his usual impeccable performance. Owen does it the hard way with very little face time, but makes it look easy. Foster is slimmed down, buffed up and babed out. She has little to do but exude confidence, but she does that so well people in the first three rows may get some on them.

Spike Lee may be a victim of his own success– and of his big mouth. A look at his body of work reveals more versatility and diversity than he gets credit for. Hardly anyone saw a couple of his best films, 25th Hour and Bamboozled, recently. The former, which starred Edward Norton, may have been too white for his core audience, and Spike's name scared off many potential Caucasian viewers. The satirical Bamboozled was controversial, divided those who saw it, and required too much thought to appreciate it.

Then came She Hate Me, about lesbians paying a stud to impregnate them, which was universally loathed. There was little doubt that Spike would bounce back from that one, but Inside Man is one of the highest bounces of his career.