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Street grit Spike Lee's pulse-pounding film isn't afraid to get down and dirty

Spike Lee's "The Inside Man" isn't just a ripping good action thriller, though it's certainly that, first and foremost.

It's really good, though, in a way that does the heart good. In other words, it's a great New York City movie, too, and you don't have to be a New Yorker to love New York movies.

You know the kind of movie that I'm talking about -- Sidney Lumet, soon to be 82, was the master of them: "The Pawnbroker," "Serpico," "Prince of the City" and "Dog Day Afternoon."

It helps, lord knows, if you're actually from New York. John Ashbery, the New York poet once put it very simply: "Like Paris, New York is always ready for its close-up. Somehow the city never fails to look good on the screen, where it quickens excitement the way the place itself does."

Amen to that.

And Spike Lee knows it. With Lumet in his decidedly senior years -- but still active -- Spike Lee, bless him, is our new Sidney Lumet. He is the great living New York filmmaker and very little these days is more worth being. "The Inside Man" is just soaked in New York, whether it's the scrambling New York of a street cop afraid to get engaged because he doesn't think he can afford it or the high-level New York of people who ride in dark-windowed limos and call mysterious friends on the down low to extricate them from their latest jam.

Don't think, by the way, that you're getting even a fraction of the feeling of a good New York movie like "The Inside Man" just because you watch "Law and Order" and "CSI: NY." Those are worthy TV shows but they're like street falafels without the onions, peppers and mushrooms. In Lee movies, you get the onions, peppers and mushrooms.

Denzel Washington plays the cop whose girlfriend wants to take the next step. Jodie Foster -- brilliant casting -- plays a deeply mysterious Ms. Fixit, the sort of person that people with nine- and 10-figure fortunes call when they have a problem too foul and nasty to get anywhere near the light of day. She provides pinstriped know-how, infinite discretion and immediate access, say, to the mayor of New York.

Christopher Plummer plays one of those billionaires with a secret -- a white-haired reptile with a string of banks who is keeping something in safety deposit box 392 that he's terminally reluctant to expose to daylight.

It becomes an issue right at the beginning of the film when four bank robbers burst into the grandee's central bank and lay siege to the place with military precision, taking many hands full of hostages in the process.

Clive Owen is their leader. He's the second actor lately to prove that you can give a witty and even gripping performance even if you spend almost an entire film wearing a mask. Owen isn't quite as masked as Hugo Weaving is in "V for Vendetta," but his naked face gets less than five minutes of screen time in "The Inside Man." The rest of the time, he splits the lion's share of screen time with Washington, while wearing shades, a hood and stocking mask up to his nose.

Washington, the swaggering cop in the white straw hat, becomes the lead hostage negotiator only because the guy who usually handles the job is out of town. Otherwise, there's a little matter of $140,000 that went missing in a cocaine bust that's still unresolved. It wouldn't do, in either a good New York movie or a crackerjack Spike Lee movie, to present virtue straight, no chaser.

The whole hostage crisis plays out inventively in ways you won't see coming, no matter now many thrillers you've seen.

And Spike Lee proves that no matter how sprawling and messy and misshapen even the best of his films tend to be, he can perform a technical exercise like this action thriller with as much stylistic panache as any director we have. When it comes to splicing pieces of film together to quicken the pulse, in other words, he's as good as it gets, when he wants to be.

The movie is fast, tough, knowing, incongruously funny and surprising -- a city boy's movie, through and through.

Not a Long Islander's movie or a Jersey Boy's movie (and certainly not a Hollywoodian's) but a city boy's movie, with "Dog Day Afternoon," and "Serpico" happily in its head.

Hallelujah.

The Inside Man

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen and Christopher Plummer in Spike Lee's action thriller about a bank robbery and a very wily police hostage negotiator. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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