Scripter David Benioff adapts his own novel in this story of friendship, loyalty and love as we meet Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton) 24 hours before he is to turn himself in to prison officials for a seven-year stint for drug dealing. With just a day left in the life he has known Monty has some critical choices to make before the "25th Hour."
The film opens as Monty stops his vintage muscle car to inspect a badly beaten dog lying by the road. Although his partner, Ukrainian-born Kostya (Tony Siragusa), insists that they have to attend an important meeting, Brogan packs the dog in the trunk and takes the injured animal to a vet for treatment. Flash ahead as Monty walks his canine friend, now dubbed Doyle, and we learn that the man is heading to jail and it is his last 24 hours before he has to give himself up to serve time following a drug bust. He is definitely not looking forward to the prospect of seven years of incarceration and has planned his last day to be with his live-in girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and his two best friends, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper).
Jacob met Monty in school as teenagers where, even then, Brogan was selling pot to the other students. This is the Montgomery that Jake is used to and he has long accepted his friend's illegal dealings. Frank, on the other hand, has been Brogan's best buddy since they were three years old and has had to live with Monty's chosen life style. Frank, as such, is much more critical of his friend and disappointed that he threw away his potential for success in the straight world. Now, Monty's friends commiserate over his upcoming plight and their feelings come to the fore. Jake declares that "I'll see him again" and will wait, loyally, until his friend is released from incarceration. Frank is more pragmatic and understands that a 7-year stint in prison will change Montgomery forever. "He's gone," Frank flatly states.
As Jacob and Frank prepare for their last evening with Monty - Jake teaches high school literature and Frank is an investment broker - the soon-to-be-prisoner makes his own preparations. Naturelle is distraught over the upcoming incarceration but puts her concern on a back burner for Monty's last day. Monty has his doubts over his girlfriend's loyalty, especially when Kostya insinuates that she may have been the one to sell him out to the DEA. (There is a brief flashback to the day of the bust when the arrogant DEA guys, led by agent Flood (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), bust Monty in his home, obviously with information provided by someone close to the drug dealer.) Monty is also summoned to appear before his underworld boss Uncle Nikolai (Levani) for reasons unknown. Everything and everyone come together later that night at Nikolai's club.
"25th Hour" is a character driven, rather than plot driven, tale that focuses on its players. Edward Norton, as central character Monty, anchors the film with his tough, pragmatic persona that is tempered with an underlying kindness and warmth that is reserved for his father (Brian Cox), lover and friends (and, of course, Doyle the dog). He will, when necessary, show the viciousness that his business requires but you feel that he should give up his sleazy career for his own good - if it isn't already to late. Norton's performance reps a return to his previous form following his thoroughly mediocre performances in "Death to Smoochie" and "Red Dragon."
The supporting cast rates as good on up. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of America's best and most underrated character actors in the business. As Jake Elinsky he is studious, quiet mannered and, truth be know, harbors a secret crush on one of his students, Mary D'Annunzio (Anna Paquin). He is also fiercely loyal to Monty and stands by him, no matter what. Barry Pepper is superb as Francis Xavier Slaughtery, a man from the poor side of the tracks who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made something of himself in the legitimate business world. It makes perfect sense that he would be disappointed and negative toward his lifelong best friend who left the straight and narrow. Frank realizes Monty's potential and it palpably troubles him that his friend is a purveyor of addiction, but he loves the guy nonetheless.
The rest of the supporting cast is also solid. Rosario Dawson gives a layered perf to her character Naturelle. She is a woman that has some real problems with her boyfriend's chosen profession but also enjoys the perks of his labor's fruits, as Frank is readily willing to point out. The chemistry between Norton and Dawson makes their relationship feel genuine. Anna Paquin, as 17-year old Mary, is a sexy little minx who uses her pretty looks and sexuality to get what she wants, especially from her teacher, Jacob. Brian Cox gives complexity as Monty's dad, a retired firefighter-turned-pub owner. James Brogan loves his son and feels responsible for his being a drug dealer. He took money from Monty to keep his own business alive and sees the blood from the drug money on his own hands. Ex-NFL player Tony Siragusa makes a splash in his debut as the heavily accented henchman, Kostya.
"25th Hour" may not be the total work that we are used to from Spike Lee - the director most often scribes his own pictures, among other filmmaking duties, but not here - but he does leave his imprint firmly on the film. He uses his patented dolly shot a few times, but unlike his previously employment of the technique (which I, personally, find annoying), it works effectively here. Lee works Benioff's script like a maestro playing an artist's music. In one scene, as Monty stares at his image in a men's room mirror, his reflection begins a soliloquy of hate against all, despite race, color or creed, that is the his way of venting his frustration and others for his fate. Lee bookends the monologue with a visual sequence toward the end that reverses Monty's earlier tirade.
The use of post-9/11 New York City is effective, especially in a scene in Frank's apartment as he and Jake discuss Monty's lot. Outside is the work site of Ground Zero that is a powerful and matter of fact that is a reminder of how our world has changed - much like Monty's is about to.
Techs befit the film with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (the "Amores Perros" lenser is having a heck of a year with "Frida" and "8 Mile" under his belt, too) complementing Lee's filmmaking style. Production design by James Chinlund uses NYC to good effect. The score, by Terence Blanchard, is uneven, sometimes haunting and effective and, at other times, annoying and obtrusive.
A Spike Lee film is always something to look forward to. He doesn't always hit his target (like with "Bamboozled"), but he does with "25th Hour." I give it a B+.
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