Spike Lee is to New York City drama what Woody Allen is to Manhattan comedy. With such Lee films as "School Daze" (1988), "Do the Right Thing" (1989), "Malcolm X" (1992), "Girl 6" (1996), and "Summer of Sam" (1999), the director has commented not only on the major characters in the films but on the settings for the films as well. In 2002's "25th Hour" he may have reached the zenith of his city commentary. "25th Hour" is as much about the populace of New York City as it is about the petty criminal it stars.
This is not to say the film is entirely well focused, however. It isn't, which is a major drawback. It tries very hard to be many things and serve many causes, forcing the viewer in the end to wonder what a lot of it was about. Nevertheless, its willy-nilly approach to thematic material causes little irreparable damage, and the film's overall effect remains positive and its story absorbing. In the end, I suppose that's all that really matters.
Lee attempts, as I said, many things in the film, not the least of which is to show how the people of New York are survivors at heart. As one of the first post 9-11 movies to hit the screen, it attempts to explain the ways the people of New York dealt positively with so horrendous an event. But Lee deals with the situation in what Hemingway would have called "three-corner shots." He presents his thesis through the experiences of a drug dealer, of all things, chronicling his last twenty-four hours of freedom before heading for a seven-year prison term and showing the reactions of his girlfriend and his two best male friends.
Still, I wish the metaphor were that easy. It isn't. The heroism of the story, representing the heroism of all New Yorkers, is ambiguous at best, and by the time the movie is finished a lot of viewers will undoubtedly wonder why Ground Zero was included in the narrative at all. Yet by showing a catastrophic, life-altering event in one man's life and how he accepts and attempts to overcome it, Lee strives to capture the spirit of the average New Yorker's plight in general and the stubborn insistence that life go on. In its own convoluted way, "25th Hour" is Lee's Valentine to his beloved city. To most of the rest of us, it's a fascinating and enlightening glimpse into the personal drama of an admitted lowlife. In either case, it's enough.
Edward Norton stars as a small-time drug dealer, Monty Brogan, who's just been nailed and about to be sent up for seven years. His performance has "Oscar" written all over it, so, naturally, he wasn't nominated. Norton is convincing as the young fellow who, as his father says, could have been anything but chose to be a pusher, instead. Yet he is no stereotypical peddler of illegal drugs; he's smart, perceptive, kind, and, it's implied, greedy.
The supporting cast are no less outstanding. His girlfriend, Naturelle, played by Rosario Dawson, is as smart and kind as he is, but perhaps a touch more sensitive. Monty's best friends from boyhood are a nerdy high school English teacher, Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with the hots for one of his students; and a hard-driven, high-rolling stockbroker, Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper). They are hardly the kind of people you would assume to be hanging out with a drug dealer, yet they love their friend and don't interfere with his business, much to their regret. The high school student is played in flirtatious style by Anna Paquin; Monty's Russian mob contact is given a surprisingly effective portrayal by footballer Tony Siragusa; and Monty's dad is played by the ever-reliable Brian Cox.
The screenplay, written by David Benioff and adapted from his own novel, conveys the alienation of a city and its people at once detached yet intimate. The seemingly impersonal lives of the characters become ever more personal as the narrative progresses. Monty's furious tirade against every ethnic and minority group in the city is probably the most backhanded acclamation New Yorkers ever received, and it's worth the film to see Monty's angry vision turned back on him by the story's end.
To be sure, Lee's gimmicks may seem overindulgent. There's the glossy, glitzy photography; the harsh pastels; the often jerky edits; the flashbacks and flash-forwards; the self dialogues; the voice-overs; the vocal surrounds. But it all works efficiently to complement and hold together the seemingly disjointed narrative. "25th Hour" packs a lot of story line into a single day, but it's a day worth spending with a character you wouldn't think so sympathetic. Add any metaphoric readings you'd like into the proceedings, and you get a distinguished and engrossing motion picture. The movie is rated R for occasional violence and continual raw language.
The video was shot to make maximum use of both color and black-and-white contrasts, with lighting heightened and hues often saturated. The result is an image that's purposely dark, stark, and grainy, like the events portrayed in the movie. The THX-mastered transfer well captures these visual qualities in a wide, 2.13:1 anamorphic ratio presentation. The picture is not meant to look real, mind you, but to offer a kind of representative reality, the reality Spike Lee wants you to see. Along with his other tricks, it may seem like overkill, but in general it works.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is quite dynamic, very deep, and widely spread out. The impact is enough to knock you down from the opening notes. A lot of rear-channel ambiance enhancement engages one in the music, while Lee plays with a number of unusual aural effects in the surrounds. Again, it may seem rather gimmicky to some listeners, but it's all a part of the kaleidoscope Lee is attempting to reveal. Terence Blanchard's original musical score, brooding and atmospheric, is well rendered, too, by the Dolby Digital audio.
I liked the extras on the disc; they are few but are worth one's time. There are two audio commentaries, one with director Spike Lee and the other with writer David Benioff, although, to be honest I had only a moment to spend with them. More important for me was a twenty-two minute featurette on the director, "The Evolution of an American Filmmaker," that does an excellent job boiling down the work of a complex man into a few minutes. Then there's a brief salute, "Ground Zero: A Tribute," that is self explanatory. Six deleted scenes, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual tests, and twenty scene selections conclude the bonus materials. English and French are provided as spoken languages, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
"We do what we have to do to survive," says a Russian gangster. So does everyone, I'm sure, and the movie does more than survive its minor deficiencies. The tales it tells may be a bit scattershot and the theme a mite vague, but director Lee manages to pull it all together into a tense, gripping, suspenseful, and highly dramatic movie experience. In fact, the more I've watched it and the more I've thought about it, the better it gets. Maybe because his beloved city and its people have never been more prominently on display in any of Spike Lee's films before, "25th Hour" turns out to be some of his best work to date.