Which is to say that Inside Man is irrelevant, another semi-high-tech mega-heist movie, the rhythms and tropes of which we are as familiar with as the wallpaper facing our toilets. Heist films, based on surprise and facile cleverness, have an evolutionary trajectory, and the stories have gotten more convoluted and outlandish because the police characters (here, Washington and right-hand stooge Chiwetel Ejiofor) have seen all of the movies we have. ("C'mon, you've seen Dog Day Afternoon," Washington chides Clive Owen's drippingly cool bank robber at one point. "Nobody gets the airplane!") In the 1970s, heist scenarios such as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Anderson Tapes had their feet on the ground, but today they have as much to do with real life and real crime as a Toy Story sequel. Modern screenwriters such as first-timer Russell Gewirtz put a good deal more thought into theft procedure than actual bank robbers do.
To wit: Owen and his crew of very calm mercenaries barge into a lower-Manhattan bank (the location is chosen deliberately for its 9/11 echoes, which Lee apparently cannot resist and that have no bearing on the story), hold 40-odd people hostage, and begin a mini-construction project inside that Gewirtz's screenplay doesn't reveal to us until the end. Days pass, with Washington's smirky, scandal-besmirched, low-grade detective deciding to wait out the bad guys. There's a good deal of waiting. We know, because we've seen the films, that Owen's preternatural serenity and glib claims at being the smartest guy in town indicate that he has a fiendishly brilliant master plan that has nothing to do with the demands he makes (the escape plane, etc.). We also know that Washington will eventually catch on, that surveillance equipment can be monkeyed with, and that the NYPD's traditional methods won't work.
Saying more would flatten the film's already disheartening fizzle, but roping in Foster as a master-of-the-universe problem solver engaged by the bank's cagey billionaire CEO (Christopher Plummer), for all of five scenes, just tamps things down further. Lee plays the genre like a board game, and his film is a sniggering riff, filled with hyperbolic New Yawk stereotypes, tit jokes, puns, scattershot commentary on racial profiling, and smug banter. As bogus in its way as Richard Donner's 16 Blocks, Inside Man has an even more grating disrespect for the verities of police work and for the emotional life of urban Americans.
There are a few rousing achievements on the table, in particular a comical police debate instigated by a faux riddle tossed by Owen about trains, U.S. currency, and Grand Central Station as well as a fast joke involving a Sikh hostage who, outraged by profiling, acknowledges that yes, he can easily hail a cab in Middle Eastern-cabbie-saturated New York. But heist films, once vehicles for postwar desperation and fatalism, are hardly what they used to be. The difference between, say, Stanley Kubrick's 1956 masterpiece The Killing and a contemporary daydream like Inside Man is the difference between a luckless hell on earth and a dull weekend in the Poconos.