Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has the perfect plan to rob a bank. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is a hostage negotiator unwilling to play his game. This cat and mouse film, a mainstream offering from the controversial director Spike Lee, is a seemingly simple crime drama which expands into dramatic conspiracy. Russell, a man with unclear motives and history has devised what he believes to be a perfect plan for the robbery of a highly public bank in New York City, exploiting in his brilliant plan secret knowledge which threatens to expose sensitive information regarding a bank executive's history. With a small and heavily armed team, Russell takes hostage various customers and staff within the bank, and then waits for the hostage negotiations to begin.
His negotiator is Keith Frazier, an aging but intelligent and experienced policeman nearing retirement. Frazier quickly realizes that Russell's demands (A helicopter, among other things) are intended to stall for time while Russell's team accomplishes some mysterious objective within the bank. Doubting that Russell will begin to kill hostages for this reason, Frazier elects to speak with Russell in person and almost succesfully arrests him before Russell is rescued by a member of his team. In response, Russell executes one of his hostages in a live video feed to the news media.
Frazier is set in a race against time to find out who Russell is, what exactly he is after in the bank, and rescue the hostages before more are killed. Complicating the matter is the interference of Bank representative Madeline White (Jodie Foster) who is intent on preventing the sensitive information regarding her employer from ever being released.
Adding to his frustration, Russell's knowledge of negotiation and his near perfect plan puts him ahead of every trick Frazier tries to pull, from fooling audio survelliance with an Albanian recording to his ludicrous demands. Frazier searches desperately for the flaw in Russell's plan, and searches for a way to bring justice to the situation.