- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

After September 11, Hollywood chickened out. Musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Alan Jackson and Steve Earle jumped into the artistic breach with mixed results, to be sure.
But no word from Tinseltown.
Leave it to that inveterate controversialist, Spike Lee, to speak up. His "25th Hour" tells the story of a prison-bound drug dealer's last day as a free man, set against a backdrop of New York in post-trauma recovery. Its results, too, are mixed.
For starters, the book on which the movie is based was written by David Benioff (who also wrote the screenplay) before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Thus, its presence is jammed into a story that's too personal to carry that kind of thematic weight. The macro doesn't fit well into the micro, so to speak.
The juxtaposition is most jarring in a scene in which Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a convicted heroin dealer facing seven years behind bars, looks into a bathroom mirror and launches into a profane soliloquy about New York's wild racial diversity the kind of teeming ethnic seething that, to Brogan's mind, left the city vulnerable to an attack from within. A very Spike Lee-ish moment, the nativist harangue comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere.
Nevertheless, what "25th Hour" lacks in continuity and thematic unity it delivers in brio. The performances are stellar, beginning at the top with the unfailingly riveting Mr. Norton, who gives the Brogan character exactly the kind of integrity and intelligence necessary for us to care about a drug dealer with ties to the Russian mob.
In the film's opening sequence, one of several narrative flashbacks, he rescues a dying pit bull that was tossed from a tenement window and nurses him back to health. The gnarly dog becomes a visual fixture, ever-present at Monty's side, an emblem of his tough, survivalist mentality.
The son of a working-class Irish bar owner (Brian Cox), named romantically by his mother after the actor Montgomery Clift, Monty is a classic case of wasted potential. He had talent and smarts to spare, winning a basketball scholarship to a prestigious private high school in Manhattan.
After getting booted out of said private school for plying his more privileged classmates with marijuana, Monty would graduate to professional, full-time dealing, earning a black-market fortune that afforded him a chic apartment and access to the city's glittery high-class night life.
Eventually, though, the party comes to a clanging end: Monty, we learn in another flashback, was busted by federal agents who may or may not have been acting on a tip from his live-in girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), the sensually named Puerto Rican Naturelle Riviera.
On the day before he is to turn himself in to an upstate prison, Monty's two best childhood friends and Naturelle agree to take him out for one final late-night ramble.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, the character actor who has proved himself able to assume just about any guise imaginable, is nearly flawless as Jacob Elinsky, an introverted Jew who teaches literature at the same private school where the three men formed an enduring friendship.
Barry Pepper rounds out the unlikely trio as Francis Slaughtery, a cocky, brash Wall Street stockbroker, a Tom Wolfe-style "master of the universe."
Much action is crammed into their night on the town, but there's little genuine fun to be had as Monty's friends contemplate their failure to try to put a stop to his illicit career.
It's a long and mentally exhausting cycle that ends at its appointed 24th hour with no hope of transformation or avoidance of fate. Monty, however, is as resilient as the city that hatched him.
At least that's what the filmmakers seem to be suggesting; it isn't at all clear what exactly September 11 and New York's racial multiplicity as interesting as Mr. Lee's ruminations on those topics are have to do with Monty Brogan and his personal travails.
Still, "25th Hour" is without a doubt one of Mr. Lee's finest films. It's mature, challenging, smart and entertaining, all the while steering clear of the high-voltage polemics that characterized the director's earlier work.
Now that the silence is broken, we can look forward to what else Hollywood has to say about the supreme reality of September 11.

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