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‘Inside Man’: Spike Lee’s joint task force

When we’re no longer watching Spike Lee joints and the credits instead say “A Spike Lee Film,” we might be in trouble.To tell the truth, I can’t be sure the credits for the last two Spike Lee movies I got to see – “25th Hour” on video two years ago and “Inside Man” on Friday night – might well have changed. And if you told me that was the case with “Inside Man,” I’d probably believe it. With its big-name cast including Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen, Lee certainly seems to be moving in that direction.It’s not only the big names involved, there’s a big concept behind “Inside Man”: Gang members who all go by some variation of the name Steve (“Stevie,” “Steve-O,” etc.) knock over a bank. They play mind games with the patrons and employees, making them all dress like the robbers. They’re intent and intense on stealing something, yet their demands – money, safe passage – seems of secondary importance.The bank robbery soon turns into a hostage situation, and two NYPD detectives (Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor) try to separate the robbers from the patrons in a series of flashbacks.It seems like heady – if fluffy – stuff for Lee, who regularly took on more substantial issues in some of his better films. To wit, if you’ve set the tone with the likes of “Malcolm X,” “Do the Right Thing” and “25th Hour,” isn’t doing “Dog Day Afternoon” again dumbing it down?With “Inside Man,” Lee seems to be going for a high-class heist movie with a conscience, and it’s compelling enough trying to watch Washington and Ejiofor try to sort out the good guys from the bad and try to figure out the reason behind the heist. Yet other directors who decided to follow the clever-crime thread – David Mamet in, well, “Heist” and New York’s own Edward Burns in the criminally underrated “Confidence” – proved more adept their first time out.So it’s a good thing there’s just enough of what Lee does best remaining among all the masks and double-crosses and Swiss bank accounts. “Inside Man” doesn’t get so into its own twisting plot to bypass Lee’s prescient grasp of New York and its nuances and subcultures.”Inside Man” might be a crime movie to the bone – but it’s got just enough of that old Spike Lee joint to make it enjoyable.


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