Spike Lee is one of my favorite filmmakers, but it can be tough defending the guy. Putting aside his tendency to be outspoken in the media (something which should have no bearing on your enjoyment of his films, but a lot of people just don’t like seeing black men speaking up), Lee’s movies can be troublesome. When he’s on, he’s making masterpieces – Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, The 25th Hour – but when he’s off, he’s making some of the worst movies you’ll see all year. Two years ago Lee hit bottom with She Hate Me, a movie that was unenjoyable on almost any level. It was, frankly, a disaster. It was the quintessential worst of Spike Lee, a movie where he’s only talking to himself, getting focused on his pet issues like an autistic kid getting focused on a shiny piece of metal.

Thankfully Inside Man is anything but that. It’s a new kind of Spike Lee film, an honest to God commercial work from the man whose idea of commerciality had previously been the life story of the most controversial black leader of the 60s. And it’s also Spike Lee’s version of film school. Here, he’s saying to other directors, this is how you make a mainstream, commercial film and lose none of your distinctive style, wit, issues or bite. Inside Man is the Spike Lee film for people who don’t go to see Spike Lee films, and it’s also a fun treat for people who see everything the man does.

CHUD message board poster Andre Dellamorte pointed out to me the fact that Inside Man is a movie quite aware of its own movieness. It’s a heist film, and it knows that we’re very experienced in that genre. It’s a hostage film, and it knows that we’ve seen this situation a million times before. So what it does is it changes things up, and makes that a part of the plot. There’s a daring daytime robbery at a Lower Manhattan bank, and the robbers take fifty hostages. It soon becomes apparent that they’re one step ahead of the police in every way – they know the police playbook, so our hero, Denzel Washington, has to throw that playbook away. The film is tightly plotted, keeping us guessing at the true motives and methods of the robbers, and Lee cuts flashforwards throughout, tantalizing us with clues. It’s a great method, and the movie throws switch-ups at you until the end.

Inside Man is Denzel’s film. He’s commanding, and he tinges his performance with just enough Alonzo Harris to keep you unsure of where he’s going. The title tells us there’s an inside man facilitating this robbery – is it Denzel?