The Big Score

Spike Lee and Denzel Washington reunite in Inside Man.

Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster in Inside Man

Inside Man (Universal) is the best Spike Lee movie to come along since 1992’s Malcolm X. It’s also the first Spike Lee movie since He Got Game * to star Denzel Washington, and just as Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock brought out the best in each other, Denzel and Spike need each other like vermouth and gin. They’re OK on their own, but mix them together and pretty soon you’ve not only forgotten your problems, but you’ve forgotten what problems even were in the first place.

Denzel plays Keith Frazier, an NYPD hostage negotiator riding herd on a standoff outside a lower Manhattan bank after a group of robbers have strolled in and taken everyone hostage. Heist flicks are usually exercises in white-knuckle tension as people shout at each other over the phone, diamond-tipped drills pierce layered titanium vaults, underarm perspiration soaks through shirts, and the trigger-happy SWAT team chomps at the bit, eager to bust through the windows and fill everyone with lead.

But Inside Man is adult, contemporary, and completely relaxed. No one shouts, few people sweat, the criminals don’t have to drill the vault doors because they’re standing wide open. The SWAT team is so cooperative that at the end of the movie I expected Washington to tip them. He’s a pillar of cool, and the most tension he generates comes from his hat, a straw fedora that you watch with bated breath, waiting for someone to sit on it. Otherwise, Washington strolls through the film, constantly interrupting himself and speaking so softly that he compels lesser men to listen. At the height of the standoff, he turns to Willem Dafoe (who, in a jarring turn, isn’t the bad guy) and says, “We’ll be at the deli down the street.” You won’t hear lines like that in a Michael Mann movie.

The tension comes courtesy Jodie Foster, in an extended cameo, playing the most uptight white woman in the world. Unconvincing in high heels, Foster is a shadowy power broker who wields tickets to charity events and whom the Bin Ladens call when their nephew needs a Manhattan apartment. She’s hired by the bank’s founder, Christopher Plummer, to protect the deep, dark secret he’s had to hide away in one of its safe-deposit boxes. The criminals also have secrets, and rather than stuffing money into bags, they seem intent on performing some kind of complicated magic trick that involves shuffling hostages from room to room.

It turns out that this isn’t a heist film after all, but a mash-up between Cotton Comes to Harlem,the laid-back cop classic that launched the blaxploitation genre in 1970, and an unmade sequel to The Sound of Music, where Christopher Plummer’s Captain Von Trapp returns to the motherland and goes into business with the Nazis. In Spike Lee’s New York, the rich and powerful have buried the bodies of their past victims in the foundations of their glittering, new cities, and few people can afford to say that they smell the stench. Critics have tended to reduce Lee to a bundle of provocations and made him a spokesman for race, since he’s just about the only director who’ll mention it. (When he makes films like 2000’s Bamboozled, they can be forgiven.) The net effect is that over the last few years, critics have tended to ignore his moviemaking, and their enthusiasm for the bouncy Inside Man is almost as if they were saying, “If you stop behaving outrageously and come to the table on our terms, then we’ll listen to you.”

But Inside Man is nothing less than a Spike Lee joint, a well-mannered older brother to his uneven Clockers (1995). It sports the same trolley shots, a ghetto-crime video game (here called Kill That Nigga instead of Gangsta), and even a prominently displayed bottle of the Bomb, that movie’s imaginary bomb-shaped malt liquor.More than anything, it makes the case for Lee as the pre-eminent chronicler of modern-day New York. The coolness and the crudity, the attitude and the alienation, he nails down every detail with a clear-eyed precision as if he’s never seen a movie set in the city before. Suspects are interrogated at the corner deli, a vital clue hinges on breast size, cops halt the negotiations for a heated debate over Grand Central Station, and when Denzel needs to identify a foreign language he just walks out into the crowd of onlookers and asks: Does anyone speak this? Predictably, someone raises his hand.

Correction, March 24, 2006: In an earlier version of this article, the author incorrectly stated that Malcolm X was the last Spike Lee movie to star Denzel Washington. It was He Got Game. (Return to corrected sentence.)