It's been a while since Spike Lee made the kind of films that people -- or at least critics -- referred to in positive terms. People didn't even go to his last two. But this time out, he's got a winner -- a heist film that's surprisingly non-formulaic. Inside Man will keep viewers off-balance while they're watching it; in some cases, they'll still be guessing during the ride home.

This is a story that's loaded with questions and practically devoid of action (except for those few brief flurries being shown in the previews). It's sort of a thinking-person's heist movie: Viewers can easily guess what's going to happen next, but they'll almost always be wrong.

Protagonist Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) introduces himself in the first frame, telling us who he is and that we'd better pay attention to what he says. An hour or so later, we're back at that opening scene. An awful lot goes on in between.

Lee is quite comfortable in his setting -- one of those sweltering city days that he loves to feature in the backgrounds of his stories. In this one, after he gives us Dalton Russell, he follows up by showing us all around the Manhattan Trust Bank, in detailed, close-up camera shots, inside and out. If a lot happens in that first hour, a concentrated dose of it comes in the first few minutes (don't arrive late), as a van filled with "workers" in white painter's suits makes its way through the city to the bank's front door. Moments later, the door barred on the inside, comes the first demand, firmly delivered to employees and customers: "You have four seconds to get down on the floor!"

Time to meet another protagonist (yes, there can be two in one story), Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), a man who talks as smoothly as he dresses. (And this man is one natty dresser.) Frazier is called to the scene of the crime (although no robbery has actually yet been committed) to be the on-site hostage negotiator. And there is no doubt that he loves his job: Grabbing his hat to make the drive, he says: "Look out, bad guys, here I come."

Lee and his imaginative cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Phone Booth, Requiem for a Dream) get the film all charged up with frantic camerawork that somehow comes across as smooth and steady rather than jarring. But Lee and his regular composer Terence Blanchard come up with the film's one glaring error -- a soundtrack that isn't too loud but is quite overbearing.

Good looks and bad sounds aside, this becomes a study of personalities that either mesh with or bounce off of one another. There are troubles between cops, as when Frazier asserts his control over the still unknown situation and the local captain (Willem Dafoe, who doesn't get to do much here) makes it plain that they're not going to get along. There are problems in the bank when some of the hostages try to become heroes.

Then things get really interesting when a third -- you guessed it -- protagonist shows up: Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a mysterious, slick, ever-smiling (make that beaming) woman who is called upon when anyone needs her "special skills and complete discretion."

Her appearance signals the first of many plot twists (of which you should not even attempt to keep track) and provides the film with the third of three great performances. For you fans of Clive Owen's rugged good looks, prepare to be slightly disappointed, as he spends much of his screen time under a stocking mask. Sparks fly when any two of these actors are paired up in verbal sparring matches. (The three of them never appear in a scene together.)

The story keeps veering away from all previous heist films because the complex plot doesn't appear to involve money but something else that's in the bank. And even when we realize where that plot strand is going, we can't be sure about where else it might go.

Your ride home will be the scene of much lively discussion about what did or didn't happen, about when you were or weren't fooled. In the end, whether you "got it" or not just doesn't matter, because Inside Man is so much fun to travel through. Anyone claiming to understood it all is simply not to be believed.

Inside Man; Rated: R; Directed by Spike Lee; Starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe

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