Today isn't like any other day for Monty Brogan. A high-class drug dealer who revels in status, Monty has been caught by the cops, and now faces his last 24 hours of freedom before he must turn himself in to serve a 7-year prison sentence. Walking around a post 9/11 New York City one last time, Monty spends the day making peace with his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), his buddies (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his father (Brian Cox), all while trying to figure out who ratted him out to the cops, and dealing with his own mounting fears of the future.
Spike Lee's "25th Hour" (IMDb listing) is a massive two-headed hydra of a picture. The film represents the first decent story Lee has worked with since 1994's sweet "Crooklyn," but it also remains a tightly wound, personal film from Lee, and provides a distinct up-to-date look at New York City. "25th Hour" is about change and personal choices, and how those choices can lead us down the wrong path even when we see it coming. Based on the novel by David Benioff (who also scripts), "25th Hour" is an intensely introspective piece about what the future, in its inherent regret, has in store for us. It's not only Lee's best work in years, but it also reminds me of a time when Spike Lee wasn't "Spike Lee," and made films from his heart, and not his soapbox.
In telling this sober tale of a drug dealer's last day of free will, Lee keeps his customary bag of tricks at bay, instead allowing the film to lead itself. But there is one moment that is, without doubt, a "Spike Lee" moment: excusing himself for a bathroom break in a restaurant, Monty spies a expletive written on a mirror. Taking the curse to its natural conclusion, Monty begins a monologue in which he criticizes all races and factions that make up New York, even reaching Osama Bin Laden, and ultimately himself. This scene recalls the remarkable character digressions in "Do The Right Thing," and gives "25th Hour" its premium moment, or at least its most visceral.
What will certainly catch most audiences' attention is the Sept. 11 imagery woven into the film. As much as it is a motion picture about personal adjustment, Spike Lee also chooses to showcase how much New York has changed since the terrorist attacks. We see ground zero being cleaned up, the two memorial beams of light shooting up to the heavens, various shots of patriotism in the city streets, and the tributes to the fallen firemen. These touches don't really have anything to do with the story, and only once do the characters even acknowledge the devastation. But in best Spike Lee fashion, the additions bring out a mournful flavor that couldn't be realized by the main story arc alone. With other filmmakers worried about cutting around the 9/11 attacks, Lee is the first to treat them with the hushed reverence and acknowledgement they deserve.
Also to Lee's credit is how good a performance he pulls out of lead Edward Norton. Never an actor to get keyed up about anything, Norton's role as Monty matches his skill level perfectly, in that it requires inner fire and constant quiet remorse. Norton's best scenes are toward the film's end, as Monty begins to drop his cool and reveals a terrified young man not wanting to part with such a huge chunk of his life. The acting here is heartbreaking, and this is Norton's most affecting work to date.
"25th Hour" represents the best side of Spike Lee. It effectively blends the two sides of his filmmaking, the narrative and the experimental, and forms a cohesive, thought-provoking whole.
Filmfodder Grade: A-