I consider Spike Lee to be one of the most vital American filmmakers. His other movies can be rough around the edges, sometimes barking really loud without being as incisive as they could be, but one thing they never do is leave you indifferent. This is particularly true of Lee's latest joint, the first American release to explicitly deal with the events of 9/11. Lee's oeuvre is as intertwined with New York City as Woody Allen's or Martin Scorsese's so it isn't that surprising that he felt the need to address the hard blow his city is still suffering from. But DAMN! Does he need to be so self-indulgent and whiny about it?
Before we get to that, let's look at what does work in "25th Hour". Technically, it's a pretty solid film with raw, nervous editing, hard-edged cinematography and a kick ass sound mix. Right from the start it's in your face, or in your ears actually, as you hear a dog being brutally beaten over the Touchstone Pictures logo! We then get a funny, smart scene introducing us to Monty (Ed Norton, as switched on as he's ever been), the kindest drug dealer you'll ever meet, as he decides to save the poor pooch. He then goes on to discuss Murphy's Law with his Russian mob buddy, describing it as "whatever can go wrong will
go wrong". Unfortunately, to an extent this is what will become of the movie.
The basic premise is that Monty will be locked into jail for seven years in 24 hours and he intends to party one last time in the meantime and maybe, as the poster's tagline suggests, "change his whole life in one day". We meet his two best friends, an insecure high school teacher played by Phil Seymour Hoffman and a brash, stressed out Wall Street broker played by Barry Pepper. That's too solid supporting performances there, even though Hoffman and Pepper are pretty much playing the characters they always play and it's hard to believe that guys so different would hang out together. And I'm no lawyer, but is prison really like a Holiday Inn where you can check yourself in when you feel like?
Still, for about 45 minutes the movie is well crafted and involving and you start thinking that Spike Lee is making one of his very best films... And then it screeches to an embarrassing would-be provocative halt with a pointless diatribe by Monty in which he bitches about Jews, gays, Jesus, ben Laden, cops and so on and so on. First of all, Lee did this exact same scene already 13 years ago in Do the Right Thing
(still the best thing he's ever made), and whereas it served as catharsis for all the racial and social tensions of that hot summer day in Brooklyn, here it's utterly out of character and it throws the whole film off track.
From then on, the film is almost all loudmouthed, obnoxious grandstanding. There's a couple of awful flashbacks to Monty's arrest by black cops who are so phony with their would-be-hip street lingo that you wonder whether Lee is being ridiculous on purpose. Then we get two kinda creepy instances of grown men lusting for underage girls, one a Puerto Rican schoolgirl (Rosario Dawson) Monty picks up at the swings in the park and the other a tattooed, E-popping sexpot (Anna Paquin) student of Hoffman. Eventually the film builds back some momentum in a tremendous extended nightclub scene with great sound, lighting and camerawork that makes you feel like you're right there, and Monty's goodbye scene with his two best friends is some crazy hardcore stuff, just like the beat-up-doggie opening. I wish the whole film was this intense but it was not meant to be, as it becomes painfully clear next, with a horrible, HORRIBLE, stretched out, obvious, overly patriotic, pseudo-metaphorical, America is a drug dealer driven to jail who should take a left turn and embrace life, I love New York and New York loves me mess of sappy score music and endless narration.
I wanted to kick walls there, or at least to do like Dave Poland and others and smack the movie on a Worst of '02 list. Watching Spike Lee go from inspired gutsiness to pretentious gooeyness all in the course of one film is damn frustrating, as if Eminem turned into Alan Jackson. Then again, here and there you do get moments of unadulterated brilliance. And hey, as I wrote above, it certainly didn't leave me indifferent. Even a lesser Spike Lee joint is worth your time.