2002, R, 132 min. Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 3, 2003
As Woody Allen slides perilously close to irrelevance, Spike Lee has emerged as the quintessential New York filmmaker, using the microcosm of New York to explore the macrocosm of America. (This, even though one of the film's crucial sequences was filmed in the Austin area.) Some would argue that he's been off his game since the mid-Nineties (although each work since then, from Girl 6 to Bamboozled, stands, no matter how muddled, as a thought-provoking piece, and his documentary work has been nothing short of superlative). 25th Hour isn't Lee's most personal piece, but it may very well be his most mature. Taken from the book by David Benioff (who also wrote the screenplay), 25th Hour chronicles the last day of freedom for convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan (Norton). In the morning, he will begin a seven-year jail sentence. In the meantime, he has to ferret out the turncoat who tipped off the DEA; say goodbye to his father (Cox), his live-in girlfriend, Naturelle (Dawson), and two childhood best friends Jacob (Hoffman) and Slaughtery (Pepper); find a new home for his dog; and resolve the most pressing matter of all: Should he stay or should he run? If he runs, he'll never see New York again, but if he stays, Monty, who is something of a pretty boy, knows he'll be mincemeat after a couple of days in the clink. That's a slim plot outline with which to fill out two hours, but Lee keeps the action moving at a tight clip. Monty is always in motion: walking his dog, walking the streets, walking through nightclubs like the cock-of-the-walk he is (that is, until sunup). The pacing is sometimes off, and Lee's patented digressions (including a charged montage of ethnic slurs that recalls earlier Lee films) are not as seamless as they should be, but leading man Norton anchors the film with his not-paradoxical mix of sarcasm, somberness, and barely checked rage. His is but one of multiple standout performances: Dawson and Cox are, as ever, terrific, and Pepper is a revelation, wiping clean all traces of that Battlefield Earth debacle with his portrayal of Wall Street shark Slaughtery, a seemingly closed-off huckster who is left as aching and raw as Monty at film's end. (Hoffman, as a sad-sack prep-school teacher, is good, but most of his time is eaten up by a yawning subplot involving his jailbait student, played unremarkably by Paquin.) Benioff's script effortlessly bounds from funny and mean to tender and cerebral, concluding in a bravura, minutes-long voice-over (narrated with whiskeyed gravitas by Cox) that is matched in power and devastation by Lee's direction. Never a slouch behind the camera, Lee has nonetheless improved vastly from the relative flatness of his debut She's Gotta Have It to this visual knockout (DP Rodrigo Prieto's use of filter is especially impressive.) There is also a conversation between Pepper and Hoffman that is striking in that Ground Zero serves as the scene's backdrop. 25th Hour was filmed post-9/11, and though that tragedy is only obliquely referred to, its repercussions cut to the core of the film. I left the theatre rattled to the bone, thinking not of Monty but of America -- and how often can you say that about a film, especially one that cloaks itself as a thinking man's thriller? Naysayers will round up the usual suspects, complaining that Lee's female characters are mere sketches, that he is too busy pushing buttons, that he cannot make an apolitical film to save his life. The first one I'll give you. The last two -- I wouldn't have it any other way.