Dir: Spike Lee. US. 2006.129mins.

In Inside Man,Spike Lee applies his jazzy and provocative directing style to the bank heistgenre and turns out an ambitious, often intriguing, but extremely uneven crimethriller. The genre and a strong cast headed by DenzelWashington suggest that this Imagine Entertainment production has the potentialto end Lee's recent run of commercial flops and perhaps even give the directorhis biggest hit since his 1992 Washington collaboration, Malcolm X.

But the unusual pairing ofstyle and content and the sprawling feel of the end result will pose some majormarketing challenges and could make it difficult for distributor Universal tosecure the broad mainstream audience that the film seems to require.

Pent up demand for aWashington vehicle - the last was summer 2004's The Manchurian Candidate - will spur interest when Universal opensInside Man wide in North America this Friday (March 24). The film shouldquickly out-gross recent Lee disappointments She Hate Me, Bamboozledand the more mainstream 25th Hour(which managed only $13m domestically) but its eventual take will depend onword of mouth and the strength of competing and probably more conventional thrillerssuch as Basic Instinct 2.

Co-stars Clive Owen andJodie Foster should be bigger pulls in international markets (where Lee'srecent films have had an even more difficult time). With UIP distributing forUniversal, the film opens in several territories day-and-date with the US andthen rolls out elsewhere through the rest of March and April.

The multi-layered script -apparently the first completed by Russell Gewirtz,who now has several other projects in the works - is satisfyingly dense if notalways particularly believable.

Though he's under suspicionin a drug pay-off scandal, Washington's Detective Keith Frazier is assigned tolead the police team handling a robbery and hostage situation at a Manhattanbank. Owen's Dalton Russell leads the meticulous gangthat takes the bank's customers and staff hostage. Foster's Madeleine White isa mysterious Manhattan power broker hired by bank chairman Arthur Case(Plummer) to retrieve a certain safe deposit box before the robbers find it.

Frazier and Russell matchwits as the standoff continues, but the film isn't content with just thattraditional genre element. There are several other ongoing characterconfrontations outside the bank and the plot eventually unfurls to take ineverything from political corruption to the Holocaust to the recent history ofthe Balkans.

The backdrop is the nervousenergy of New York itself. The city is portrayed as a roiling multi-ethnicmicrocosm and though Lee isn't at his most controversial here there are somebiting moments dealing with everyday racism and the new tensions of thepost-9/11 world.

Stylistically, Lee seemsintent on trying everything that he can in a two-hour-plus running time. Thenarrative is punctuated by inserts of the cops interviewing hostages after thecrisis is over; the visual style takes in constantly circling cameras, dollyzooms and direct-to-camera delivery; and the tone shifts frequently from comicto dramatic and back again. The dizzying effect is emphasized by a soundtrackthat includes two versions of Bollywood classic Chaiyya Chaiyya and originalmusic from jazz name and Lee regular Terence Blanchard.

With so much going on,Inside Man certainly isn't dull - but it is seriously unfocussed (especially incomparison to 1970s New York heist classic DogDay Afternoon, which is referred to in both the dialogue and the pressnotes).

Intrigue builds quiteeffectively over the story's first hour and there are some intense moments asthe robbers, their intentions not yet clear, deal withthe terrified hostages. But tension begins to dissipate during the second hourand the film becomes more frustrating than satisfying.

It's not simply that thereal reason for the heist is revealed quite early on and the eventual outcomeis partially revealed by the inserts; it's more that the film reveals toolittle about the robbers' motivations or those of some of the other characters.

In his fourth project forLee, Washington looks comfortable as the capable, confident and appealingFrazier. Owen is impressive as the scary but idealistic Russell, especiallygiven that most of the time he's wearing a mask, dark glasses and a hood.

Foster is successfully castagainst type as the scheming White and besides Plummer the supporting playersinclude Ejiofor as Frazier's partner and Dafoe as aresentful police captain.

Production companies
Imagine Entertainment
Universal Pictures
40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks

US distribution

International distribution

Executive producers
Daniel M Rosenberg
Jon Kilik
Karen Kehela Sherwood
Kim Roth

Brian Grazer

Russell Gewirtz

Matthew Libatique

Production design
Wynn Thomas

Barry Alexander Brown

Terence Blanchard

Main cast
Denzel Washington
Clive Owen
Jodie Foster
Christopher Plummer
Willem Dafoe
Chiwetel Ejiofor