film review: 25th Hour ***1/2

Spike Lee’s new drama 25th Hour is a perfect reflection of the director’s personality – daring, loud and in-your-face. Over his 15-year career, Lee has shocked the public and stirred debate with his race-driven dramas and passionate courtside antics at Knicks games. True to form, the controversial filmmaker holds nothing back in 25th Hour starring Edward Norton – Lee’s second movie featuring a non-African American in the lead role.

25th Hour is the story of Monty Brogan, a likeable drug dealer played by Norton. Monty was recently arrested and starts his seven-year jail term in 25 hours. On his last day of freedom Brogan must consummate with his girlfriend, find out who narked on him (the cops knew exactly where to find his stash), party one last time with friends, say goodbye to his father, and convince his drug dealing higher-ups that he won’t give them up. Needless to say, it’s a fast-paced flick.

The plot is fleshed out through flashbacks and flash-forwards, intensified with blaring techno music, neon lighting and fast editing. Lee’s background as a New Yorker definitely inspired the pacing. The supporting characters are fresh and lively, and they are as essential to the film as Norton is.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Boogie Nights) plays Jakob, one of Monty’s oldest friends. Jakob is a bashful high school teacher and an intense side plot develops between him and Mary (Anna Paquin), an underage student he yearns for like Lolita.

Another friend of Monty is Frank (Barry Pepper), a Boiler Room-esque Wall Street trader who is the total opposite of Jakob. Frank is rich and fast-talking, often rambling into brilliant, witty monologues. In one scene, he explains to Jakob why an affluent Wall Street guy like himself is in the 99th percentile of available bachelors, while a goofy teacher like Jakob is only slightly above average.

The film is full of scenes like this. Most of the movie takes place in a trendy New York nightclub, but Lee manages to square people off into one-on-one conversations throughout the night: Jakob and Frank argue in a bar, Frank picks a fight with Monty’s girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), Jakob talks with Mary in a bathroom, and Frank and Monty talk about life in a quiet room upstairs.

A particularly memorable scene arrives when Monty stares at himself in a mirror and starts a tirade against everyone and everything in New York. From the Asian grocery store owners, to the “brothers uptown who never pass the ball,” to Osama bin Laden – Monty leaves no one out of his rant, leaving particular space for himself.

Lee references 9/11 quite a few times in the movie, even setting a long conversation between characters in front of a window that overlooks Ground Zero. While some will find Lee’s use of 9/11 imagery unnecessary, it’s embedded deeply into the heart of the film. 25th Hour uses New York as a backdrop, and all of the characters and locations drip with that Big Apple feeling. To ignore the presence of 9/11 would seem unnatural.

Actor Brian Cox (Adaptation) plays Monty’s father in the most significant supporting role. He drives Monty to the prison on the morning of his sentence, explaining along the way via voiceover what Monty’s life would be like if they didn’t take the exit to the prison and opted to flee west. Cox gracefully caps off an incredible year, turning in strong supporting performances in 25th Hour, Adaptation, The Ring, The Bourne Identity and The Rookie.

Much like 9/11, the plot of 25th Hour serves as a looming afterthought. The film’s strength resides in its characters, acting, dialogue and Lee’s competent direction. Given a different director, 25th Hour could have been a heavy-handed attempt at making a drug dealer seem like a good guy. Lee is important because he succeeds in making characters real, complete with unappealing flaws, while ensuring the audience minds for them that much more.

Shawn Wines can be reached at