"You are a magnificent cunt!" Poor Jodie Foster. In Silence Of The Lambs, she had manfat-flinging Miggs insisting he could smell it. Now she's being called one - by the mayor of New York.
He's got a point, though. As a smirking powerbroker, she sashays in - all thigh-tugging pencil skirt and reptilian glare - and blatantly pockets the plot all for herself, just as it looks like Denzel is going to get to do something interesting. "No offence," she hisses at his hostage negotiator. "But there are matters at stake here that are a little above your pay grade."
That's the trouble with Inside Man. No ideas above its pay grade. No ambition. Solid, dependable, does all the things it's contractually obliged to do perfectly well, without ever threatening any flair, any edge, any sense that its pootle and chug might soon rev up to a roar. It's numb, comfortable and content to bask in its own blandness. It's Coldplay, Chicken Korma, M&S, Rich Tea, Volvo, short-back-and-sides...
From a filmmaker with such easy talent and firebrand rep, Inside Man is infuriatingly mediocre. Half-arsed jabs at terrorism twitchiness ("Shit! A fucking Arab!") and police racism are Lee reaching out of the screen and pinching us, just to make sure we feel something in the midst of all the suffocating averageness. And he cheerfully skirts the edges of dad-cool by peppering the place with over-researched modern references (a micro-recorder's availability "on Amazon", an unnecessarily techie sound ruse, kids tapping at PSPs, multi-ethnic bank customers nodding to iPods, a feeble doff to Fiddy).
Washington, meanwhile, is a mesmeric talent with class and charisma to burn. But he's best when either scuffing up that statuesque image (Training Day) or unleashed in the middle of something that calls for a little struggle and smoulder (He Got Game, Malcolm X). He even (just about) shone as an unhinged avenger in Man On Fire. Here, he ambles through on autopilot in a curious Panama Hat, dapper summer suit and trouser creases you could chop old carrots with. He's the De Niro to Lee's Scorsese - always best in Spike's films, and Spike's films are always the better for having him in them. But this is a sleepwalk all the way: big-dog brother tearing it up on the mean streets, with a restless soul-sister back home (caramel tones, idling sax, velvetty pleas for marriage). And whose idea was it to call him Keith?
Still, Lee and Washington on an off-day are still worth your time and money. While the brassy score recalls slow-burn '70s cop classics (namedrops for both Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon are worked into the script), it's Lee's audacious, artful framing and attention to the clammy quirks of humanity that elevate the film beyond mere genre slumming. He foregrounds typical background details like the mechanics of police cordon set-ups and, rather than presenting the hostages as generic collateral, zooms in on the cowed indignities of captivity (sweat, tears, fear - darting eyes, clenching fingers). There's also plenty of evidence of prickly old Spike's sledgehammer irony - most notably in the terrific scene where Owen and his goons confiscate everyone's mobile phone before forcing them to strip down to their underwear - the former being the far more effective expression of modern urban nudity.
Although Denzel snaffles the choicest cuts, the script glistens with zest - particularly in Owen and Washington's antler-locking ("The last time I had my johnson pulled this good, it cost me five bucks"). Later, the cop brags that he has the robber exactly where he wants him ("Behind me, with his pants around his ankles, but it's a start"). While Willem Dafoe is wasted as a chipper rozzer, Lee is smart enough to not overstretch Owen's specific talents. He's perfect as a cold fish with shadowy motives, wisely checking the loony routine for a focused, breezy-does-it approach ("You get me what I want. I don't kill anybody"). Still, the Yankified Brit thing... Couldn't they get a proper American?
And Foster? She's creepy, way too smug for comfort and clearly having a lot of fun not being a victim for a change. In one of the film's few indelible moments, she and Washington snag a glorious, Heat-style toe-to-toe. "I got to where I am by collecting friends, not enemies," she meows. "Don't bullshit a bullshitter!" he barks back.
Inside Man isn't a bad film and it will make you smile (not laugh) and frown (not wince). But it won't send you back to reality feeling changed, moved or - disappointing, for Lee - challenged.