It begins with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) speaking from a cell. This is the line we see in the trailer, where he tells us to listen very carefully to what he's saying, and he continues on to say that there is a large difference between a cell and a prison cell (dead giveaway right there if you're paying attention to what he's saying). He then goes on to say that he executed his (perfect) plan to rob a bank not only for monetary gain, but because he could do it.
We then cut back to the day of the robbery where an obscure van from a painting company is picking people up from different locations. Each person is dressed in a white smock, and its difficult to identify one from the other (main theme in the movie). Inside the bank, it appears to be an ordinary day. A Rabbi is speaking to representative, people are waiting in lines, listening to their music, talking on their phones etc. Then a "painter" in his smock enters with two large flashlights. He calmly sets his flashlights down in specific positions on a table in the center of the large room. He is followed by two others dressed like him who then proceed to lock the doors of the bank entrance. At this moment, the security guard is alerted and the butt of a rifle is shoved into his back, warning him to not attempt to do his job. Russell (Owen) then fires his gun in the air ordering everyone to be on the floor in 4 minutes or suffer a bullet to the head. Sooner or later, everyone complies.
Outside the bank, passers-by notice smoke (Russell and his compatriots must've let loose some smoke canisters) coming out through the entrance doors and point this out to a passing cop. The cop checks it out, trying to get the doors open when Russell opens the door from inside, sticks his AK47 at the cop's face, speaks in some fake Eastern European accent and tells the cop to keep the police away from this place or he will shoot the hostages inside. The cop backs off and Russell retreats inside.
Cut to Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) at work, on the phone with his girlfriend. They have a small argument about his girlfriend's brother - who is living with them. The brother apparently has a record and is living off his sister. Frazier is not happy about this situation, but acknowledges the fact that this brother is the only family his girlfriend has, and they end the argument by making up. Frazier's partner, Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), tells Frazier that he should marry his girlfriend, but Frazier brings up the issue of money and the lack of a ring to give to his would-be wife. We also find out that Frazier is suspected (by internal affairs, I assume) to have stolen (or accepted as a bribe, I don't know) a good sum of money by some suspect. Frazier claims this to be a set up.
The chief of the department then comes up to Frazier and tells him about the bank robbery and hostage situation going down. He throws the case at Frazier not only because the other detective is unavailable but because he believes Frazier to be a good cop. Needless to say, Frazier and Mitchell are psyched at this opportunity to prove their worth and drive down to the scene.
Meanwhile, in the bank, Russell and his comrades in arms (who refer to each other as "Steve", "Steve-o" or "Stevey") are working on organizing the situation. They ask everyone to surrender their cell phones. Everyone does so except for one man who insists that he left his cell phone at home that day. Russell asks the man his name and then threatens the man with a gun to see if he is lying, but it doesn't appear to be so. However, as he is turning everyone's phones off, he notices that this man's name is listed as a contact in someone else's cell phone. He dials the man's number from this different phone and hears it ringing in another room. The man sweats, apologizes, and Russell, who is obviously very angry, says it's okay. Russell goes into a room with foggy glass windows and we see him debating whether he should shoot this chap or not. He comes out, drags the man inside the room and proceeds to beat him up.
The robbers then get all the women onto one side of the room and the men onto the other. They are ordered to strip down to their undergarments and to put on the clothes contained in bags that the robbers had brought with them. Everyone does so.
Things are being organized outside the crime scene with ambulances at the ready, and NYPD's squads at the ready. The bank is cordoned off and there is a large van that houses audio/visual equipment necessary to provide information on how things are going down. Inside Frazier introduces himself and Mitchell to Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), and although there is some uncomfortable tension between Frazier and Mitchell, this all gets straightened out in the next minute.
We flash forward to scenes after the heist has taken place (this happens at several junctures of the movie), and we see Mitchell and Frazier interviewing several of the hostages. They are hostile to some and friendly to others, trying to figure out whether any of the hostages knew the identity of the robbers or anything else about them. It is obvious at this point that the police do not know which of the people are the hostages and which of them are the bank robbers. However, we do not know if the robbery was successful or not.
Flash backward, and we see the man who started this successful chain of banks being informed of the hostage situation taking place as one of his branches. His name is Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) and he is chairman of the board of directors. He then makes a direct call to Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), and asks her if she is the kind of person who he can trust with handling a delicate situation. She believes she can. Case drives off to meet her where they take a walk and he explains his concerns regarding this incident. He tells her that he has something more valuable to him then money within that bank and that he would do anything to protect it. In other words, he wants this secret kept safe. White tells him that if it's anything that can jeopardize the lives of people (and in short, her career), the deal's off. Case tells her it's not so, and she agrees to take on this task.
In the bank, several things are going on. In the back of a storage room (where office equipment is stored), we can see the robbers digging a hole with some kind of pickaxe. They alternate between this task. The hostages meanwhile are kept in groups in separate rooms. At times, one hostage is pulled out of the room and exchanged with another in a different room to seemingly keep the confusion going.
In the police van, Frazier wants visuals and a cop inside says he got into the video tapes and plays them. They look at the screen (from when Russell first entered the bank) but can't see much both because of Russell's outfit and mask and because the videos are turned off in sequence as soon as the robbers enter the bank. One police officer believes this has something to do with the flashlights that were carried into the bank, and says that the customers didn't notice any light emanating from the devices because they were probably infrared. IR lights have the ability to disrupt mechanical devices, hence the disrupted video cams.
Darius asks Frazier when he's going to make the call to the bank to speak to the fellow in charge down there, but Frazier plays it cool, saying that he'll speak to him when he makes the first move.
Inside the bank, one hostage is experiencing chest pains. Russell sees this, and decides to let the man go. The hostage - who is dressed up one of the hostage-takers - is thereby mistaken for being just so, and is handcuffed and brought to the ground (but is otherwise unharmed). I think he had a note with him from Russell, telling the cops to send in some food for "50 hungry hostages". The cops do so, deciding to send in some pizza (because it's easier for them to place bugs in).
White, in the meantime, meets with the mayor and asks him for "one last favour" - indicating that this must be a big one. The niceties are dispensed with, and they deal with each other very frankly and forwardly. She asks him to get her down to the crime scene and give her access to whatever she needs to get her job done. He agrees.
The mayor and she then meet with Frazier, alone, and she tells Frazier to allow her certain liberties in this case without giving him any solid explanations. Frazier is not thrilled at this new turn of events, and to crudely appease him, White hints that he could move up his career ladder should he choose to help her out.
After he leaves with his meeting with White and the mayor, another hostage is released. This time, there is some kind of metal briefcase or panel hung around the hostage's neck. The hostage is a Sikh, and mistakenly thought to be Muslim, and the case around his neck believed to be a bomb. This doesn't turn out to be so. The case has writing on it. More demands from the hostage takers. They want 2 buses and a jet for their getaway. Frazier ! and Mitchell interview the hostage but are unable to get much information from him (as they do from a lot of the other hostages. Some racial comments get brought up here as they do elsewhere in the movie).
Using the bugs from the inside the pizza boxes, the police hear dialogue which they identify to be Russian or Eastern European. Finally, they identify it as being Albanian. But on getting a Albanian woman to translate, they discover that this dialogue is merely a tape being played back (to confuse the police, and therefore, to delay them) as it's a recording of a dead Albanian president's propaganda.
Finally, Frazier decides to make the call and speak to Russell. The first time Russell doesn't pick up, but he does on the second go. There's the usual hostage negotiation dialogue here, but the only difference is that Russell is extremely calm, and Frazier immediately recognizes this. He realizes that Russell is someone who you do not want to play around with because he is perfectly clear in what he says and does. Russell wants each of his demands met and threatens to execute a hostage if this is not done.
In the bank vault, we see more unusual goings-on. The money has not been touched. Instead, locker number 392 is opened. One of the female hostage takers picks the lock, and Russell pulls out one of the contents inside. It's an old, yellowed file with the Nazi swastika on its cover. He takes it with him, leaving some small black cloth bags containing diamonds inside.
Come evening, Frazier is more than normally concerned about how things are shaping out. The robbers seem unusually patient. Previously, he had called Russell asking him for more time. Russell grants him more time only if he answers a riddle correctly, which Frazier does. This strikes him as odd.
He decides to let White go in to speak with Russell, as she wanted to in the first place. He tells her that if she doesn't come out within a stated time limit, she might not come out until this entire ordeal is over. White is not fazed. She goes in, checked for any hidden weapons etc., and then begins talking with Russell. She tells him that she can offer him a better deal than anyone out there. If he surrenders, she will see to it that he gets a few years max, and then 3 million quid will be waiting for him when he gets out. At this point she doesn't know that Russell has the file, Arthur Case's file, with him. When he shows it to her and tells her that he knows all about Arthur Case, he tells her that there is nothing that she can possibly offer him, indicating that their conversation is over. He tells her that he will get what he wants his way, and will be walking out of that door a free man and leads her outside and lets her go.
Frazier then speaks with White and asks her what goes on. She lies to him, and Frazier tells her he's aware of it. Off the record, she only tells Frazier that Russell has something that is very important to a client of hers, and for her client's best interest, she needs to protect it. He reminds her of her agreement - wanting more information, but she doesn't relent and walks off, telling him that her bite is worse than her bark.
Fed up with how things are going on, Frazier decides to add a catalyst to the situation. Recognizing that these guys are more than just a little patient, he decides to arrange this jet for them and lets Russell know, wanting to see how they'll react to this new turn of events. But in order for this to work out, he wants to go in there and make sure that every hostage is alive and well. Russell agrees.
Frazier then goes in, and is allowed to see each group of hostages. Apart from being terrified everyone seems in reasonable physical condition. There's some casual banter between Russell and Frazier with Russell offering Frazier some gum. Frazier even tells him of the situation with his girlfriend, explaining how he doesn't even have enough money to buy her a ring. Russell tells him that if he really loves her, then money shouldn't be an obstacle. Frazier then asks Russell to give this game up in a friendly manner, even offering him to buy him a beer. Frazier extends his hand as if to shake, and immediately suckers Russell into getting knocked over. The two wrestle down the stairs by accident, with Frazier almost coming out on top. But his victory is short-lived as one of the other robbers points a gun to his head, causing him to back off. Russell is extremely ticked off, and lets Frazier know this. Frazier tells him that this situation is a complete load of "bullshit" and that Russell cannot "bullshit a bullshitter". Everything that has been going on is a facade for something else, but he doesn't know what that something is. At this point, Russell points his own gun at Frazier, and Frazier tells him to pull the trigger because he's not nothing to lose. Russell pushes him out the door and comments on wishing that someone sane was in Frazier's place.
Frazier speaks with Mitchell telling him that he messed up and knows that something bad is going to go down. Sometime later, they get a visual feed from within the bank. It's apparent that Russell wants the cops to see this. We see a hostage with something pulled over their head, and a gun pointed at him/her. The trigger is pulled and the hostage falls to the floor. The Chief then approaches Frazier and tells him that although he believes that the latter is great cop, he cannot allow himself to go down in this mess.
The following day, a decision is made to storm the bank. The layout of the building is awful for this kind of mission to go down well, and the cops throw ideas off of each other. Shooting with regular bullets is a no-go because they could just as easily hit one of the hostages as it's difficult to tell the hostage-takers apart from the hostages. They finally decide on rubber bullets, and choose to dress the squad up in similar get-ups to add to the confusion.
Outside the van, Frazier is talking with the cop who first reported the robbery. They get into a more of less friendly conversation where more racial comments are brought up, and Frazier asks the cop to tone such slurs down. The cop agrees to do so, saying that you never know who is listening. This tips off Frazier to something else, and he now realizes why Russell and his gang are always two steps ahead of the police. He runs into the van and tears apart the metal case that one of the hostages previously came out with. There's a bug inside. He immediately contacts Captain Darius (who is leading the strike team inside the bank) and tells him to back down because the gang inside know they're coming and they know how.
This is apparently the case as we see Russell and his friends go into action. Immediately, the front doors burst open and out come a mad rush of hostages. Rubber bullets are fired and there is chaos. Eventually, all the hostages (and hostage-takers, we assume) are on the ground with their hands tied behind their back. They are taken back to the department on a large police bus. We recognize the faces of three of the hostage-takers, but Russell's is not amongst them.
When the squad secures the joint, they find no body, but a red-stained shirt with fake blood and squirter to prove it. The AK47s, too, are merely toy guns. In addition to that, no money has been taken and everyone is utterly befuddled. Back at the police station a few days later, the chief expressed his relief over this case and tells Frazier to bury it. At this point, Frazier is informed that the money he was suspected of taking has been found, exonorating him.
Frazier refuses to do so. He leafs through what little evidence there is, and notices that the paper regarding locker 392 is missing. He had no idea why. While still pursuing this lead, White meets with him again, telling him to back down because his career is on the rise, so why ruin everything now? This is a veiled threat, and Frazier pulls out a tape recorder disguised as a pen, which has his and White's conversation of their "arrangement" on it. White backs off.
We then cut to Dalton Russell, who is once again talking to us from inside his cell. Only this time we can clearly see that it isn't a prison cell. It's a makeshift cell that the robbers had constructed inside the storage room. Russell's plan was to remain inside until the storm had blown over, and then walk out the bank a free man...as he had initially intended.
Outside the bank, there is a black colored vehicle, inside of which sit the hostage-takers from before. They are waiting for Russell and his goods. Suddenly, they spot Frazier and Mitchell entering the bank and inform Russell of this. He is not fazed as it appears that they are not coming for him. As he exits the bank, he brushes his shoulder against Frazier's, and Frazier takes no notice of this, focusing instead on his business. He needs to pursue his lead.
When Frazier gets a warrant to open locker 392, he sees a pack of gum (Russell offered Frazier the same gum from earlier on in the plot) and box containing a large diamond ring.
Russell gets inside the car and throws the bag (containing Case's diamonds) in the back. He tells the others that he left the larger diamond ring behind - explaining that it's in good hands. He explains that although he does steal, there is a certain limit to what he will do. He does so because he needs to look at himself in the mirror with respect each morning. They drive off.
White, in the meantime, is meeting with Arthur Case. She informs him that Russell has made off with the file, but will only use it as leverage/blackmail should something happen to his disadvantage. Case then tells her about his past, in which he accepted a generous sum of money from the Nazis when he was younger, to betray some Jews into their hands. Apparently, some of these Jewish people were once Case's friends, and the ring belonged to one of them. He offers White money to keep this under wraps. She accepts it gladly like it was something she does on a daily basis.
Frazier trails the ring back to Arthur Case. He and Mitchell go meet with him. The meeting starts out pleasantly enough, until Frazier mentions how this case had been pulled and tweaked by people higher up. Namely, people like Case. He speculates that Case has more than just a normal degree of interest in it, and then shows him the ring. The two partners walk out of Case's office laughing, knowing that they have him worried. Frazier then interrupts White during lunch, and gives her a business card for someone involved in exposing war crimes. It isn't obvious that he is going to take action then and there, but he makes it known to her that he is now aware of what exactly her role was in all of it. In short, it appears as if Russell has given Frazier the means of implicating Case, should he need to.
In the last scene we see Frazier go home to his girlfriend. While he takes off his gun and removes his badge from his pocket, he pulls out a diamond. He suddenly realizes how it got there. The person who had brushed against him earlier on that day in the bank was Russell himself, and somehow he had slipped the diamond into Frazier's pocket. Frazier smiles, realizing that he can now marry his girlfriend, as he has a proper ring to offer her.
P.S. The movie opens and closes with a wonderful remixed song in Hindi. For those of you wondering what it's called, I found out that it's named "chaiyya chaiyya".
The bank robber, Dalton (Clive Owen), forces all the hostages to wear the same clothing as the robbers making the robbers and hostages all look alike.
Dalton only robs the safe deposit box of the bank's founder which contains diamonds and evidence of the founder's relationship with the Nazis which is how the founder gained all his wealth.
At one point during the hostage negotiations Dalton speaks with the head negotiator, Keith Fraizer (Denzel Washington) and Dalton tells how he will simply walk out of the bank. Frazier also makes small talk explaining to Dalton about how he can't afford an engagement ring for his girlfriend.
The hostages, including all the robbers except Dalton are set free. Remember, they are all dressed alike. Dalton could be identified by Frazier so he doesn't leave. The police find that nothing has been stolen as there is no record of the safe deposit box, all the money is still in the vault and there is no evidence of any of the robbers.
Frazier discovers that one of the safety deposit boxes was not in the records and opens it. Inside is a large diamond ring with a note that says to "Follow the Ring" which ultimately will implicate the bank founder to his Nazi ties.
During the robbery Dalton had built a false wall in the storage room and stays inside it for four days after the robbery. As Dalton is finally leaving the bank he bumps into an unaware Frazier who is entering the bank.
Later, Frazier finds a diamond (for his girlfriends ring) that Dalton placed in his pocket during the bump and he figures it all out.