Inside Man opens with the criminal mastermind played by Clive Owen looking directly into the camera and admonishing us to pay attention. The good news is, we don’t really have to. Spike Lee’s most commercial movie ever, Inside Man is a big budget Brian Grazer heist movie that fires on all cylinders — while the audience leans back and enjoys the ride. Lee’s keen eye for New Yawk inter-ethnic interactions is in full effect and we’re treated to some excellent performances by a large and talented cast of hostages, police officers, bank robbers and interested parties. The script, by Russell Gewirtz (channeling Richard Price), has a number of surprises, small and large, that add up to a supremely entertaining story.

Like the movies to which it owes its existence (Pelham 1-2-3 comes to mind, Dog Day Afternoon is mentioned outright), Inside Man has a velocity of narrative that can lull you into dismissing it as mere entertainment. Terrence Blanchard’s pulsing, pulpy score likewise creates an atmosphere of just-the-facts-ma’am procedural. But, as with what appears to be a straightforward bank robbery, all is not what it seems under the polished-brass surface of this movie. You might never have known this was a make-or-break movie for not only Spike Lee but Denzel Washington.

Continue reading about Inside Man (no spoilers), Spike and Denzel…Denzel finally got his Oscar for Training Day. That same night, Halle Berry got hers. Was this the beginning of a new era, or just an anomaly? An Oscar generally bumps up an actor’s asking price by a large factor. But if that actor can’t bring in the big crowds that justify the big price, people will stop paying it. His next movie out of the gate, John Q had a respectable $30M opening. That, however, was a peak. After Out of Time, Manchurian Candidate and, to a lesser extent, Man on Fire, I think people were starting to wonder. With Inside Man, they should wonder no more. Denzel is a matinee idol as suave as Cary Grant and with better acting chops. He acquits this role like a born hero. It won’t win any Oscars, but can only yield further stardom.

But what of Sheldon “Spike” Lee? The tales of Spike the tempermental artiste have been bouncing around ever since She’s Gotta Have It — and in the brief time I interned at his 40 Acres and Mule Filmworks, I was privy to some mild examples.

Some might psychoanalyze it thusly: The man who made Do the Right Thing clearly has rage in his heart. But after becoming rich and famous in vindication for that rage, people stopped being interested in hearing it. So the rage grew. He moved heaven and earth to make a big budget biopic of Malcolm X. But, despite some brilliant sequences, it fell into the biopic trap of being episodic. He made a documentary, 4 Little Girls, and, though nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, the Oscar that year went to The Long Way Home, “The story of the post World War II Jewish refugee situation from liberation to the establishment of the modern state of Israel.” Lee, frustrated, made some remarks that we’re difficult not to see as anti-Semitic and, instead of recanting them, the stubborn auteur compounded them with further remarks. A lesser man would’ve retired to one of his multiple domiciles and lived a life of comfort from residuals, but Lee persevered, making He Got Game and Summer of Sam, two uneven epics, before striking undeniable commercial and artistic success with a little documentary about a comedy tour. Original Kings of Comedy is a pretty standard concert film, but it hit the Zeitgeist of the time and made huge t.v. stars of D.L. Hugely, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernic Mac. Their travails in adapting their comedy to television probably inspired Spike’s next film, an adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s television satire Network. Bamboozled was a brilliant but sometimes intellectually incoherent film, made on a shoestring. To a lot of people who don’t understand what a feat it is to wring money for one’s art without having the moneylenders own you, the movie made Spike look, frankly, crazy. His lawsuit against SpikeTV — in my theory a publicity stunt for both parties — probably didn’t help that assessment. Enter 25th Hour, a mature character movie; a New Yawk movie, a humble movie. An earnest drama with lots of stars of all races was a good choice for a next film. Then, right before it went into production, 9/11 happened. Living in New York City at the time, I can vouch for how that event defined the city. It makes sense to have the movie have it as a backdrop. But 25th Hour is the story of an unrepentant drug-dealer’s last day of freedom before he goes to jail. And it’s hard to feel sorry even for Edward Norton, with the backdrop of real suffering. The movie, which should have been a watershed for its depiction of the lugubrious city, was met with stony silence. I did not see She Hate Me, but I read a number of derisive reviews. It may be unspoken, but critics were ready to pounce on Inside Man. They will not have the satisfaction.

Inside Man is undeniably a Spike Lee/Denzel Washington film. Their fingerprints are all over it. But it’s glossy and entertaining enough to put to bed the doubts that have been swirling around about their commercial potentials. I’m quite sure of this, although the opening weekend figures are not yet available. Even if they are less than expected, I have no hestitation say this movie has the same long-term endurance as its forebears, Dog Day, Pelham, Serpico, Sea of Love and other smart pre-Law and Order procedurals.