This is one Spike Lee joint that I’m definitely smoking. A film that received a weak release from Disney’s Buena Vista/Touchstone Pictures and consequently made barely $13 million, “25th Hour” is a gem that many will stumble upon (such as myself) and pat themselves on the back for a good find.
David Benioff pulls off one of the better self-written-book-to-screenplay adaptations possibly ever, especially for a guy with no prior screen writing experience at the time. The scenes are elegant (with some help from director Lee) and the messages both real and potent. The story centers around Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton), who has just been busted by the DEA for dealing and wants to make the most of his final 24 hours before getting locked up.
But “25th Hour” is no “drugs ‘n thugs” drama. Monty’s drug-dealing life stays in the periphery of the film with hardly so much as a reference. Benioff and Lee are much more concerned with the concept of a man about to pay a tough price for a past mistake and how he might view the world and handle the relationships with those closest to him.
Monty chooses first to visit his father (Brian Cox) that evening. Meeting at the bar his father owns where he primarily serves cops and fire fighters (keep in mind the film was made in a barely post-9/11 NYC setting), he takes a bathroom break where a simple “fuck you” message written on the mirror sends him on a voice-over monologue tirade, uttering aforementioned curse about every single sect of the Big Apple’s population before laying it on himself. Lee, whose love for the city of New York is anything but a secret, continues his tradition of the city as a character in this way. Monty is mostly angry at himself, but he has something to get off his chest, which is that no one, not even the millions of New Yorkers not going to jail, are free of flaws. Dealing and letting it get too far was Monty’s flaw and simply he must pay for it.
The rest of the night takes place predominantly at a night club run by the man Monty works for, Uncle Nikolai. He brings along his two closest friends, Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jake (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), who he believes might have ratted on him about the money stored up in his apartment that the feds found.
The film favors its ensemble heavily, providing each actor a terrific opportunity to show multiple facets to his or her character. Pepper usually fills in screen space in most films, but he complicates his investment broker character by making him flip from self-assured to emotionally confused. Hoffman works his subtlety as a high school teacher clearly not in control of his life when his student (Anna Paquin) flirts with him. Dawson plays nicely off the script’s implication that she might have secrets to hide.
Aside from the poor casting of NFL player Tony Siragusa as a key character and some odd epic fantasy battle scoring from longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, “25th Hour” is near-perfect execution of a story taking place in a short time window: no overly dramatic plot twists, but character-building and message-fueled dialog with a strong application of epiphany. All the more beautiful is how it echoes the post-9/11 message of enduring despite yourself or someone else pummeling you to the point where it appears there is nothing left.
25th Hour (2002)
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by David Benioff
Starring: Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper