25th Hour (January 9/03)
25th Hour is undoubtedly one of Spike Lee's most thoroughly effective efforts in years, as the movie is also one of his most straight-forward. Lee's biggest problem has always been his inability to reign in his overly enthusiastic sense of style, which generally does more harm than good. Unlike directors such as Brian De Palma or Paul Thomas Anderson, Lee's never quite been able to seamlessly integrate flashy camera work into his scripts. Take, for instance, Crooklyn. That film contained a protracted sequence shot entirely through a distorted lens, even though Martin Scorsese himself wouldn have been unable to make such a concept work. But, with 25th Hour, Lee's finally found himself a script that contains a premise so strong that even his avant-garde tendancies don't seem terribly out of place.
Edward Norton stars as Monty Brogan, a small-time drug dealer who was recently arrested for holding quite a large amount of marijuana. It's the day (and night) before his seven year prison stint, and the film essentially documents his last hours. Interestingly, Monty's not the sole focus here; we also meet the three people closest to Monty - Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), his girlfriend, and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Francis (Barry Pepper), his two longtime friends. Jakob is an insecure teacher with a crush on one of his students, a brash girl named Mary (Anna Paquin), while Francis is a successful Wall Street type who believes that money makes the world go 'round. Through the course of the film, Monty hangs out with all three separately and together, while also saying goodbye to his father, James (Brian Cox).
Based on the novel by David Benioff (who also penned the script), 25th Hour contains a premise that's inherently interesting. Monty is a guy who's been spoiled by life; he thinks he's untouchable because of all the years he's been able to get away with dealing drugs. But he got pinched, and he knows that even when he gets out, his life will be completely different. As he mentions at one point, he'll have to essentially start from scratch and find something useful to do with his life. Though we know what he did for a living, Monty nevertheless becomes someone that we like and even feel sorry for - which makes it all-the-more intriguing to watch him as he deals with his final night as a free man.
But what's really surprising about 25th Hour is how much time the film spends away from Monty. The characters of Jakob and Francis each get a 10-minute introduction all by themselves, and there are other sequences throughout the film that focus on the two of them - without having Monty anywhere near the two. And while the film would've been considerably shorter had the focus remained solely on Monty (as it is, the running time is around 135 minutes), letting us get to know his two friends just adds to the richness of the story. It certainly doesn't hurt that two great actors play Jakob and Francis, with Hoffman giving yet another amazing performance and Pepper proving that he's one of the most underrated actors that's out there. And, of course, there's Norton. He's saddled with a tough job - Monty is someone that we really shouldn't have much sympathy for - but he pulls it off, creating a character who's fate we really become invested in. But as good as those three characters are (not to mention Brian Cox as Monty's loyal father), the film doesn't do a very good job of developing the two female characters. Naturelle and Mary don't really exist beyond the point of loving girlfriend and sultry temptress, respectively. However, they don't receive all that much screentime, so their harm on the movie is minimal.
Having said that, 25th Hour's biggest problem is Lee's obsession with the September 11th tragedy. The film's opening credits run over images of the two beams of light display that was erected on the anniversary of the disaster, and as compelling an image as it is, it really doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the story. Likewise, there's a scene a bit later one featuring Jakob and Francis talking - with Ground Zero smack-dab in the background. Admittedly, that was an impressive sequence if only because it goes on for a while and it's uninterrupted, but still, all this 9/11 imagery finally becomes more distracting than anything else. And Lee just can't resist inserting one of his patented diatribes on race midway through the movie, with Monty speaking to a mirror image of himself and blasting virtually every culture that exists within New York City. It's compelling, sure, but how does it fit into the rest of the movie? It doesn't, really.
Still, the film manages to remain entertaining throughout it's long running time, a feat that few movies of late have been able to accomplish. Even if you're not a fan of Lee (like me), the movie will probably win you over with some great performances and an engaging storyline.