Spike Lee’s heist film is set in the 21st century (with full awareness of the ethnic stew and contemporary power politics that define New York City today), but it spends a lot of time tipping its hat to the New York street dramas of the 1970s, those tales of the gritty, untameable city told by Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), William Friedkin (The French Connection), and John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man).
Most of the film is a battle of wits between Clive Owen’s brilliant thief, whose gang stages a hostage crisis during a bank-vault robbery, and Denzel Washington’s wily detective, who tries to ferret him out. Running interference are Christopher Plummer (a mogul with a secret hidden in the vault that he doesn’t want revealed) and Jodie Foster (a power broker who knows where the proverbial bodies are buried). The story, told in time-jumping fashion in Russell Gewirtz’s puzzle-box screenplay, is full of deliberate misdirection; the revelation of Owen’s true motives and what he’s really up to is pretty far-fetched, but you certainly won’t guess it. That heist-movie feeling—that you’ve been manipulated and swindled by pros—is what you’re left with, and there’s nothing unsatisfying about that.