For partisans, walking into a new Spike Lee film can be a nerve-racking experience. What's he going to do now? And how far off the deep end will he go? Last time, it was the epically rejected ''She Hate Me," a big fat farce about a buppie and the lesbians he was paid to impregnate. It had more on its mind than most people were willing to concede, but its insanity remains inarguable.
Now it's on to a bank-robbery thriller, ''Inside Man," which stars Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Plummer. This is probably Lee's most purely enjoyable movie, a radical departure, too, insofar as its package is conventional genre stuff with a twist of French crime classic. But the script, by first-timer Russell Gewirtz, is skintight (for a Lee film), and Lee's filmmaking is playful yet unusually calm.
The basic story is elemental, but because Lee and Gewirtz invest it with grit, comedy, and a ton of New York ethnic personality, it's fresh anyway. The first 10 minutes are a wonderful reminder of why I haven't been inside a bank in almost two years, and it's not because a gang disguised as painters might walk in and hold up the place. It's because people on cellphones waiting in line seem more annoying than people with guns.
The man running the operation is Dalton Russell, a peevish dude played by Owen with his usual growling insinuation. In the first scene, he looks right into the camera and brags that he's planned an ingenious heist. Part of its genius includes forcing his dozens of hostages to strip to their skivvies and put on dark, hooded coveralls that match the robbers'. This could be the start of ''Die Hard 6." But by this point, the movie has already distinguished itself.
We've seen Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) talking nasty on the phone to his silky-voiced cop-girlfriend, played by Cassandra Freeman. (Lee always has the jazziest black women in the most thankless parts.) Frazier is in hot water over a missing $180,000 or so. But he and his partner, Bill Mitchell (Ejiofor), are given the Wall Street robbery anyway. They can't believe it. They're psyched to be on the job, and that anticipation is contagious. No crusty, jaded, Bruce Willis detectives for us. Frazier even puts on a snazzy Panama hat for the occasion.
Just as those two wings of the movie get going, the film leaves the tension at the bank and drops in on a posh apartment, where Madeline White (Foster) is about to get a call from the bank's stern owner (Plummer). He'd like her to fetch something ''secret" from his safe deposit box. Madeline cuts through the movie with great occupational vagueness.
But Foster, dressed in revealing business suits, with her skin shiny, tight, and tanned, has never looked more expensive or redolent of sorority. The character is high-class, well connected, and possibly sleazy, marching down to City Hall to wring a favor from the mayor.
These three sides build to a number of nifty, if implausible, climaxes. More than its plot and the admittedly bizarre motives behind the bank robbery, ''Inside Man" is a personality-driven throwback with one foot firmly in this era. A couple of times someone references a Sidney Lumet picture, and in some respects this movie might have been one of his. But this is Lee's third film since 9/11, and you can feel the sociopolitical ground shifting.
One of the bank's hostages is Vikram (the excellent Waris Ahluwalia), a young Sikh whom the robbers release early with a message tied around his neck. The NYPD officers on the scene assume he's Arab and that the message is a bomb. They rough him up, then swipe his turban. When Frazier and Mitchell interrogate him later in a booth at a diner, Vikram refuses to discuss the heist until his turban is returned, then condemns his harassment. When he's done, Washington says, ''But I bet you can still get a cab." In this single moment, which is more vivid than almost all of ''Crash," we see the sad modern hierarchy of American bigotry.
Lee also gets in an eloquent dig at black-male gangstas. They run amok here in a little boy's video game, a shoot-'em-up so morally appalling that even Owen's nasty bank robber takes offense.
This is a big Hollywood movie, with Lee's usual truckload of ideas and energetic performances from the entire cast. Washington hasn't been this relaxed in years. When he feels like it he can be the most charismatic star in the movies. His smile, which he flashes in the joshing interrogation scenes sprinkled throughout the film, is a dentist's dream. This is a simmering, intelligent piece of acting that, for a change, stays below the emotional radar. Washington is having a good time. So is Foster, who seems happy not to have to roll up her sleeves and bruise people. She and Washington have a pair of crackling scenes together in which they really seem to be studying each other. Enough can't be said of actors who like their material. If they buy it, so will we.
And Lee is suavely selling -- but not selling out. He's found a way to matter as an entertainer without copping out as an artist. The fact that Brian Grazer has produced ''Inside Man" might strike some people as odd, like Phil Spector trying to tame the Last Poets. But the movie is unmistakably a Spike Lee Joint. He's surrounded by his usual precision band, which still keeps sizzling harmony: Barry Alexander Brown on editing, Wynn Thomas on production design, Terence Blanchard on score, Matthew Libatique, back for his second tour with Lee, on photography, and Washington on the lead.
For Lee, working with Grazer is just an opportunity. Everything is. He's been itching for something to catch commercially his whole career, and this superbly crafted movie looks like his best chance yet.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.