It’s easy to see why so many filmmakers make heist movies. Few setups are more conducive to drama and tension than a bunch of bank robbers attempting to pull off a near-impossible crime. Everyone from Christopher Nolan and Steven Soderbergh to Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet has put their mark on the genre.
But the surplus of great heist movies has also made it easy for good additions to the genre to be lost to time. That’s what happened to Inside Man, the underrated 2006 bank robbery flick from Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X director Spike Lee. While the film was well-received both critically and commercially upon release, it’s rare to see mention of it today.
That’s a shame considering that Inside Man is not only a well-constructed, exceptionally fun heist thriller, but one that happens to star some of the biggest names of the past 30 years. It’s on HBO Max, but it’s leaving the platform soon, and you need to check it out first. Here’s why.
Inside Man is an ensemble thriller that charts the high-stakes robbery of a New York bank. The heist puts its mastermind, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), at immediate odds with not only Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), the police detective that’s charged with taking his operation down, but also Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), the fixer for the owner of the bank that’s being robbed. Over 129 minutes, Inside Man bounces back and forth between the perspectives of its three leads as they desperately try to get ahead of each other.
From its opening scene, which gives Owen’s Dalton the chance to brag to the camera about his ability to pull off the perfect heist, Inside Man pulses with the confidence and editorial bravado that’s come to define Spike Lee’s work. The film moves at a brisk, no-nonsense pace, allowing Lee to show off his more stylistic impulses and keep the tension high from start to finish.
While the film’s Russell Gewirtz-penned script isn’t perfect, it still delivers the kind of clever, last-minute twists you’d expect from the genre. Lee leans into the slick playfulness of the script, delivering an entertaining thriller that feels both sincerely made and almost brazenly in on the joke. It’s telling that Inside Man manages to use Clive Owen’s trademark smirk better than almost any other film.
As is usually the case, Lee knows exactly how to use each of his actors. Washington, Owen, Foster, and Christopher Plummer (who plays the bank’s problematic owner) are all perfectly cast. Washington in particular gets to have a lot of fun as Keith Frazier, who fits in the kind of good-guy-with-an-edge archetype that the Malcolm X star has more or less perfected.
Inside Man isn’t interested in reinventing the heist genre as much as luxuriating in its well-known pleasures. What makes it work as well as it does isn’t just that it understands exactly what kind of tools it has at its disposal, but how to use them. It’s the kind of professional job that would make Owen’s character proud.
Inside Man is available to stream on HBO Max until November 26.