By Rob Blackwelder
For almost its entire first act, Spike Lee's captivating, character-driven "25th Hour" only hints at a plot as the film corkscrews into the pulp of one dismal, discomforting day in the once-high life of Monty Brogan.
A handsome, well-to-do, young Manhattanite with a swanky apartment, a beautiful, love-of-his-life girlfriend, a loyal dog he rescued from near-death and a detached disposition, Monty (Edward Norton) seems nonetheless morbidly acquiescent to and distracted by something ponderous hanging over him.
As Monty tries to shore up plans to spend the evening with two life-long friends -- an arrogant Wall Street cowboy (Barry Pepper) and an anxious, clammy, unstrung schoolteacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) -- director Lee reveals in brief, striking flashback fragments what it is that's on the character's mind.
We see two flippant DEA agents searching Monty's apartment and finding a stash of cash and heroin. We see him playing it cool while being grilled in an interrogation room because he thinks his first offense will mean a slap on the wrist. We see a happier memory of the first time he met his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and feel an undercurrent of inevitability in their flirtation.
It's a long time before Lee reveals that tomorrow Monty is going to prison for seven years. But by the time that fact comes up, almost in passing, Monty's sometimes resigned, sometimes regretful, sometimes malevolent reexamination of how he arrived at this last day of freedom has become the cinematic equivalent of a book you just can't put down.
That may have been the intent of screenwriter David Benioff when he adapted his own novel, but Spike Lee's personal touches not only bring a resounding heft and import to the movie, but also turn the story into a momentous metaphor for the strength, fortitude and resiliency of post-Sept. 11 New York City.
Pepper's character lives in a high-rise overlooking Ground Zero, and it's startling for his friends to watch the excavation from his window. "The New York Times says the air is bad down here," notes Hoffman on a visit to these uncomfortably posh, ironically situated surroundings. "F**k the Times," replies the cocky Pepper in true New Yorker style, "I read the Post."
The opening credits run over a dramatic, stirring shot of the Manhattan skyline with the two powerful beams of light that flooded the sky for several months earlier this year from where the towers once stood.
But the movie's most explosive and most New York City moment is a contrast to Norton's otherwise potently internalized performance. It takes place in the bathroom of a bar owned by Monty's doleful ex-firefighter father (Brian Cox), where he locks himself in and stares intensely in the mirror as his reflection launches into a blame-seeking vitriolic diatribe that slanders every conceivable class and ethnicity in the city.
It eventually becomes clear, through the ironically illustrative images that flash across the screen as he rages, that this tirade is itself an homage to the thick-skinned spirit of the berg's blustery citizenry. "No, f**k you Montgomery!" Norton then retorts to his ranting reflection. "You had it all and you threw it away."
Although Dawson gets little chance to explore her character, "25th Hour" does spend time plumbing the conflicted egomania of Francis (Pepper), who blames Monty's fate on Monty ("I love him like a brother, but he f**kin' deserves it"), then himself ("I just sat there and watched him ruin his life") before unfairly turning his ire on Naturelle. Lee also follows repressed mollycoddle Jacob (Hoffman), as his apprehension in the company of his more successful friends is considerably compounded this night by bumping into a student (played by the wantonly Lolita-esque Anna Paquin) who has been wreaking lust-inducing havoc on his ethical willpower.
When the director returns to Monty, you understand him better through the tension and devotion of his relationships with these friends, and Lee leaves you to draw your own conclusions about his morality and his motives from such insights. But you're still not prepared for the dire request Monty makes of his friends in his last hours before turning himself in, knowing the kind of life that awaits him in the penitentiary.
"25th Hour" is at its most profound, however, when Monty's father lays his love on the line for his son, imagining, even encouraging, a vivid alternative future as a fugitive, the description of which tests Monty's reinvigorated moral mettle.
The film has a more conventional feel than any "Spike Lee Joint" before it. But the intrinsic understanding of the characters' souls and psyches, which slowly seeps into your mind as "25th Hour" unfolds, provides exactly the kind of impact one expects from this dexterous and discerning director.
Run time: 135 mins
In Theaters: Friday 10th January 2003
Box Office USA: $12.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $13.1M
Distributed by: Touchstone Pictures
Production compaines: Buena Vista Pictures, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Fresh: 129 Rotten: 36
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Edward Norton as Monty Brogan, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jacob Elinsky, Barry Pepper as Frank Slaughtery, Rosario Dawson as Naturelle Riviera, Anna Paquin as Mary D'Annuzio, Brian Cox as James Brogan, Tony Siragusa as Kostya Novotny, Levan Uchaneishvili as Uncle Nikolai, Misha Kuznetsov as Senka Valghobek, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as Agent Flood, Michael Genet as Agent Cunningham, Patrice O'Neal as Khari, Al Palagonia as Salvatore Dominick, Aaron Stanford as Marcuse, Dania Ramirez as Daphne
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