With the most mainstream movie of his career, Spike Lee pays homage to the great crime caper movies with Inside Man. It’s more puzzle than typical heist movie: even a simple bank robbery, like each of the characters in it, is more than it seems. Like Scorcese repeatedly working with DeNiro, Lee teams up once again with Denzel Washington (Mo Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game) who plays the complicated Detective Keith Frazier. Waffling on whether to propose to his girlfriend and facing corruption charges, he’s a man “too smart to be a cop.” Good thing, because a lot of the movie goes unexplained.

The movie is filled with wonderful performances. Frazier’s half sleuth/half street cop is pitted against Clive Owen’s mostly masked “villain,” Dalton Russell – bank robber-cum-father confessor – in a cat and mouse game of wits. Jodie Foster has a ball playing Madeline White, a mysterious power broker in need of having her own movie. A bit of a red herring, she is never sufficiently explained, despite the viewer wanting to see more of her intriguing character (think “The Cleaner” from Pulp Fiction).

It’s the little things about Spike Lee movies that provide me such joy. The music that is almost a character unto itself: though slightly intrusive this time around, the Terrance Blanchard score–the John Williams to Lee’s Spielberg–adds a flourish of film noir. The costumes: Lee seems to take pains to dress his leads, paying as much attention to Denzel’s wardrobe as his performance. And the movie feels very New York-y: from the bank customers, to the international feel, to the shout outs to Brooklyn.

Spike Lee is still prone to his quirks: he interrupts the rhythm of the film with interrogation sequences, so you have an idea of who lives right away. He manages to squeeze in one of his infamous “standing still on a moving track” shots. As always, he leaves room for social commentary in his film, from the racial profiling of “Arabs” to how video games (Lee’s subtle jab named “Kill Dat Nigga”) and hip hop mentalities impact our view of things.

“There’s a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being imprisoned.” –Dalton

Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are already in a prison, no matter how gilded the bars. We have built these complicated structures in our lives, often trying to fill the voids in us with the trappings of wealth. Inside Man is largely about what we value: whether it’s the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ethic of money and success or the power of secrets, those things left unconfessed.

“I sold my soul and I’ve been trying to buy it back ever since.”

Unconfessed sin is the true corruption at the heart of the movie. “All lies all evil deeds, they all stink. You can cover them up but they will come out,” Dalton Russell says. Someone in the movie has sinned. The sin has been long buried, but not forgotten – and though it has been mostly covered up, sins have a way of finding you out. No matter our self-salvation scheme, be it becoming successful at what we do or turning to social service with the idea of making up for it, that is not where true salvation lies. True salvation begins with confession, be it voluntary or your hand being forced. Only then can true redemption be found.

Inside Man, though a taut crime thriller, is a morality tale along the lines of Phone Booth. I will have to find a place in my Top Five Spike Lee Joints for this one. Ya dig. Sho nuff.

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My Top Five Spike Lee Joints (Recommendations)

Let me put this as plainly as I can: Spike Lee is not a great black film-maker. Nor is he the black Woody Allen. He’s a great film-maker. Period. Some of his movies are more controversial than others, and some get lost in the mix because they aren’t controversial at all. Here are some of my faves:

1. Do the Right Thing – seventeen years later, the movie still packs a powerful emotional wallop
2. Malcolm X – features Denzel’s tour-de-force performance, though he was robbed of the Oscar. Yes, they they made up to him by giving him one for Training Day, but we all know they were rewarding his performance in Malcolm X.
3. 4 Little Girls – a fabulous documentary that is heart-rending to watch.
4. Clockers – Spike Lee enters the hood movie genre (Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society) with this strong entry.
5. 25th Hour – starring Ed Norton, this one features one of the best “End of Self” moments put to screen.

Honorable Mentions:
Jungle Fever – two movies for the price of one. The main story, starring Wesley Snipes, explores the idea of interracial relationships, but the thesis gets somewhat muddied by being entangled with the issue of adultery. The sub-plot, featuring a strong performance by Samuel L. Jackson, is so good that it threatens to overtake the movie.
Bamboozled – if you can get past the voice that Damon Wayons chooses to employ, this is some of Spike Lee’s finest satire of television and racial stereotypes.

His under-rated character studies:
He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Mo Better Blues, Get on the Bus, Crooklyn