Denzel Washington is the seasoned police negotiator who finds himself in a battle of wits with Clive Owen's super-smooth bank robber when he is called in to settle a tense hostage situation. Director Spike Lee plunders the Seventies for inspiration for this slick heist caper that sees him teasing the audience with a shoal of red herrings. Jodie Foster throws a sharp-suited spanner in the works as the mysterious troubleshooter who treads on Denzel's toes.
"Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself."
Delivered directly to camera by Clive Owen, it's an arresting beginning, at once dragging the audience into the story whilst also promising something just a little bit different.
The trouble is, boasting an all star cast, an intriguing premise and a director never afraid to shirk a challenge, 'different' is the very least the audience expects.
This is at times thrilling, clever and funny. That it falls short of being great is as much to do with expectations going in as it is to do with the quality of the film itself.
Its set up is very simple: Owen is Dalton Russell, planning and implementing (as he so humbly tells us) the perfect bank robbery.
Denzel Washington is Keith Frazier, the hostage negotiator sent in to diffuse the situation. Immediately sensing that something isn't quite right, Frazier stalls and is confronted by the mysterious Madeliene White (Jodie Foster) a free-agent brought into proceedings by the mayor and the bank's owner.
She won't tell Frazier why she's been involved, only that he must give her his full co-operation. But who is she protecting? And what is it that Russell really wants?
Much feels overly familiar, the story salvaged by a pair of terrific performances from the two male leads and some idiosyncratic directorial touches from Lee.
Owen manages to be at once menacing and sympathetic - the bad guy the audience can't help but identify with - whilst Washington is every bit his equal in a role that the film's fluctuating tone sometimes makes difficult.
Lee can't resist throwing in the occasional point about race or politics, but his touch here seems lighter than in recent efforts - there's a nice moment when an unknown language is translated by playing it through loudspeakers: New York's multi-culturalism ensuring there's someone walking by who can help.
Less successful is Foster in a role that feels slightly underwritten. Supposedly tough and clever, she seems more smug and arrogant, and her limited screen time doesn't really allow her to turn that initial impression around.
And whilst some of Lee's flourishes are what make the film so interesting, they also slow proceedings down on more than a few occasions.
Still, it's a fun picture, and a welcome return to form for Lee after the woeful She Hate Me. Worth catching up with, if only because genre flicks of this quality are a real rarity these days.