(director: Spike Lee; screenwriter: David Benioff/based on Mr. Benioff’s book; cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto; editor: Barry Alexander Brown; music: Terence Blanchard; cast: Edward Norton (Monty Brogan), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jakob Elinsky), Barry Pepper (Francis Xavier Slaughtery), Brian Cox (James Brogan), Rosario Dawson (Naturelle Riviera), Anna Paquin (Mary D’Annunzio), Tony Siragusa (Kostya Novotny), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Agent Flood), Tony Devon (DEA Agent Allen), Levani Outchaneichvili (Nikolai), Al Palagonia (Sal); Runtime: 134; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Tobey Maguire/Julia Chasman/Jon Kilik/Spike Lee; Touchstone; 2002)

“The film does a good job in capturing the grim mood of NYC after 9/11.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” is based on the book by David Benioff, who acts also as the screenwriter. It’s about the twentysomething brash and talkative Irish New Yorker Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) and his last day of freedom before he turns himself in to the overcrowded and dangerous upstate New York prison for a seven-year term for heroin possession. He had on him one kilo with intent to distribute, which results in the stiff mandatory penalty due to New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. Monty is out on bail because his widowed retired firefighter Staten Island bar owner father (Brian Cox) put up his bar as bail money. In the time left before Monty loses his freedom, he revisits his elite private high school he attended on a basketball scholarship and wonders what went wrong from his promising early start after he lost his basketball scholarship for selling weed. He also spends time with his two closest and oldest friends – the frustrated lonely heart Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a high school teacher in the same private school they both attended, and the handsome and arrogantly confidant Frank (Barry Pepper), a rising reptilian-like Wall Street broker. He also comes to terms with his Puerto Rican longtime girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), as he is suspicious that maybe she ratted him out.

The film opens as Monty takes time out from making a drug deal to rescue a dog abandoned somewhere under the FDR Drive who was tortured and left to die in pain. That wounded dog is named Doyle and becomes not only his refurbished pet but another ready-made film metaphor.

In the background the film plays as an elegy to a city reeling in the aftermath of 9/11, a hard hit city that has the grit to pick itself up off the mat and fight back. The city looks dreary and is filmed in digital video as its colors are either darkened further in gloom and doom or given that pop culture blue metallic look. Monty’s plight is compared to the city’s (it sugarcoats that he’s a greedy pig without a conscience who sells heroin in park playgrounds where children play).

In one spooky scene, the stock broker is talking to his teacher friend in his ritzy apartment overlooking ground zero.

The real heroes of the city are the firefighters and they are remembered along with the Yankees and the Wall Streeters, and the resilient Manhattanites who put up with breathing the bad air and all the other traumas from the WTC carnage.

Monty reveals himself as a first-time offender who never thought he would get caught and now fears that he is too handsome to survive prison among the hardened criminals. But he will not rat out his boss, the Russian drug lord Nikolai (Outchaneichvili), for a reduced sentence, because he is both loyal and fearful of the consequences to his father if he does. Monty is afraid of being gang raped, and of having no one around to protect him. Monty believes he only has three choices: To do the time and use his wits to get by. To escape to some desert town out west and change his identity and live a life of obscurity. Or, to commit suicide. The film tantalizes us with these three choices and never makes clear which one he chooses.

In Monty’s occupation, you better know who to trust or the results could be disastrous. DEA agents discover his drug stash hidden in his Castro sofa. The only two people who knew he kept it there are his girlfriend and his giant Ukranian strong-arm, Kostya (former NFL star from the Baltimore Ravens Tony Siragusa), whom Nikolai sent him as protection for the drug deals.

The most involving scene is the last night party Nikolai throws for Monty in a trendy late night downtown club. Monty is forced to attend. He brings Naturelle, Frank, and the nerdy Jakob. Jakob meets outside the club a 17-year-old student in his class, Mary D’Annunzio (Anna Paquin), whom he fantasizes over but never had enough nerve to act on this crush. Monty gets her into the club, and the insecure and tongue-tied teacher is confused about what to do about his lust when she obnoxiously leads him on so that he will change her grade.

The film does a good job in capturing the grim mood of NYC after 9/11. All the performances are uniformly good without being special. As hard as it tries to show that Monty is not such a bad guy but only one of many such urban wiseguys who was misled by a dream, he still remains unsympathetic even when we can feel his concerns about his personal safety and that he has a soft spot in his heart for dogs and chicks. But, we also realize he has no excuse for ruining other people’s lives in such a wanton and self-indulgent fashion, and that he’s merely a lightweight hiding behind a phony tough exterior. Spike Lee never comes up with a moral to the story or a firm grasp about his protagonist’s character, but the film remains strong because the script is tight.