I keep coming back to the cinematography. Despite a cache of fine performances and one of the smartest American heist scripts in years, I can't help but come back to the look of the thing, and how much fun it is - rare indeed is the film whose camera movement is enough to keep me enraptured all by itself.

Thus did I enjoy Inside Man, the best film of the first quarter of 2006, not that it has a whole lot of competition for the title. It is not a flawless film, and it suffers from a lack of thematic clarity, but it is so boundlessly energetic that watching it is a treat despite whatever holes in conception or execution you might care to point out.

And so: the cinematography. This is a visually noisy film, with nearly every frame full of movement and distracting mise en scène, and this is a very good thing. Moreover, the camera is constantly moving and often handheld, and this is a better thing - simultaneously, the film seems chaotic and laid back, meticulously planned and lazily spontaneous. This mood is crucial to the film's depiction of a singularly precise bank robbery which nobody seems very much to worry about.

Ah yes, the plot: the spine of any good crime movie, or any bad one. Here, a weirdly calm and intelligent man named Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) informs us, the audience, that he has recently masterminded the perfect bank robbery. We then hop backwards - or sideways (it's hard to tell) - to the execution of this plan, and the attempt by Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) to figure out what the hell is going on when Russell's gang seems to perform no crimes while waiting for a plane.

It's convoluted but not impossible to follow, even with a massive side plot involving Madeline White (Jodie Foster, in her first good American role in a decade), a mysterious fixer hired by the bank chairman (Christopher Plummer) to secure an undivulged secret. Madeline's identity and the chairman's secret both seem to be MacGuffins; one is revealed and matters, one is not revealed and does not matter. I will say that at a certain poitn I was certain Madeline was permanently leaving the film and I found her character a pointless if entertaining red herring; later she returns and I discovered I was entirely wrong.

Inside Man is a good example of the fact that a great director can't help but make an interesting film, even if he's just trying to make a frivolous entertainment. The great director here is Spike Lee, who has made significantly better films than this one, but none nearly so much fun to watch. It is customary for white critics to observe that Lee is obsessed with race to such a degree that he forgoes argument in favor of polemic; this is only partially true, but certainly it is easier to appreciate Lee's technical mastery when it's in service of a fairly non-confrontational story.

That is not to say that the movie does not make an argument about race; merely that its argument is subdued. Ethnicity is foregrounded (a lengthy scene involving the difference between Slavic countries; a Sikh refusing to cooperate because the police thought he was an Arab and took his turban; not to mention Madeline White), but Lee and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz seem to be reminding the audience that racism exists, rather than expounding on it. The closest the film comes to argument in this regard is a scene in which Clive Owen takes a violent videogame apparently titled Kill Dat Nigga away from an African-American boy, suggesting aloud that the boy's father needs to keep a closer eye on such things. A late reveal implicates one of the 20th Century's most significant acts of racism, but even here it seems more a pretext than a theme.

The film's laissez-faire approach to race is endemic of its approach to the world. The cops on the case lack any sense of real urgency - three times, Frazier is seen in a coffee shop relaxing, and at the end he's even told to forget about the case, which nobody much cares about. In a way, it's like Dog Day Afternoon, a film it name-drops: crime is a spectacle for idle New Yorkers, who ultimately have only a sporting investment in the outcome. It's all very observed and detached.

Where the film comes close to foundering is that it really has two themes running parallel, never once coming into contact. The one is the sense of "whatever" that informs its society and racial angle - New York will go on. The other has to with knowing and seeking knowledge. Time and again, Clive Owen's Russell is praised for his intelligence and planning; the plot of the film is basically watching Denzel Washington solving a puzzle. It's interesting to be sure, and it pays dividends, especially in the twist ending. At the beginning, Russell tells us that he chooses his words very carefully, and indeed we find that he does. Like any good crime film, Inside Man piles on delicately hidden clues and demands that we find and juggle all of them. But none of this has anything to do with race, and at times it feels like there are two films happening at once because Lee couldn't quite decide which one he'd rather make.

But still: the cinematography. Lee and Matthew Libatique have followed the rule of "form equals content" to a degree hardly ever seen in American cinema since the 1970's. It's fun, and it's messy, and it's been choreographed to a T. I don't remember the last time a dolly around two actors made me sigh in delight, but I did here. Sometimes, a remarkably self-assured visual cool is all you need, and the rest follows suit.