[Screen It]


(2002) (Edward Norton, Barry Pepper) (R)

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Drama: A drug dealer spends his last night of freedom with his friends before going to prison for seven years.
Monty Brogan (EDWARD NORTON) is a drug dealer who had decided to go straight, but was too late in making that move. Busted by the feds, he's now facing a seven year prison sentence. Accordingly, he's decided to spend his last night of freedom with his two best friends, Jacob Elinsky (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN) and Frank Slaughtery (BARRY PEPPER).

Jacob is an insecure teacher who's uncomfortably attracted to one of his underage students, Mary D' Annunzio (ANNA PAQUIN), who likes to flirt with him. Frank is a high-flying, successful investment banker who can't stand the fact that he and Monty's live-in girlfriend, Naturelle Riviera (ROSARIO DAWSON), allowed things to get this far out of hand.

After having dinner with his father, James (BRIAN COX), and before meeting his drug lord boss, Uncle Nikolai (LEVANI), Monty goes out with his friends and meets up with Nikolai's Ukrainian henchman, Kostya Novotny (TONY SIRAGUSA). As the night wears on and Monty tries to figure out who, if anyone, turned him in, he must decide what he's going to do regarding his pending imprisonment.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
The events of 9-11 hit Americans like a brick in the face. Not only did it blindside us, but it also left us wounded, scared and angry. Yet, in the true American way, it unearthed the underlying resolve to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and carry on.

That said, many in the entertainment industry have been hesitant about addressing the event and its aftermath in their work for fear of appearing insensitive or even exploitative. That's been particularly true with movie studios that either shelved or rescheduled release dates or edited out shots of the now missing Twin Towers from their offerings.

Director Spike Lee, on the other hand, has decided to damn the torpedoes and sail full speed ahead with his latest film, "25th Hour." While it's not specifically about the tragic event or its aftermath, the tone and thematic issues of 9-11 permeate the offering. Whether it's the blue beacons of light that briefly illuminated the NYC skyline (and appear here during the opening credits) or shots of tributes to fallen firefighters or a scene overlooking and even peering down into Ground Zero, one can't escape such reminders.

Lee ("Bamboozled," "Summer of Sam"), who's stated that one can't and shouldn't make a film in NYC without addressing or including the issue (since it's the current reality there), ends up with both positive and negative results from doing just that.

Unless a work is specifically about that event, such visual and verbal reminders threaten to disrupt the proceedings by distracting the viewer with his or her feelings, thoughts and memories of what occurred. That's particularly true when still so close to them temporally. Whether that's Lee's intent is debatable, but there's no denying that such elements bump the story off its track - if only temporarily - with each occurrence.

Yet, they also serve as powerful and effective metaphors for the subject matter at hand. Then again, it's possible that the film's plot about a drug dealer, his unwelcome wake-up call and his reaction to that is nothing more than a camouflaged allegory to 9-11 and its aftermath. From the wounded dog that's saved because he's a fighter to the temptations, finger-pointing and a venomous diatribe revolving around intolerance, the film is teeming with symbolism.

It's also compelling and disturbing, but then again uneven and flawed. The above diatribe, while powerful in its own right and indicative of the character's flawed state of mind, feels forced and out of place. It will likely remind reviewers of Lee's far more provocative "Do The Right Thing." Other story elements - regardless of their metaphorical value, also feel out of place and aren't always congruous with the main thrust of the plot.

For some viewers, David Benioff's screenplay (adapted from his own novel), will leave too many questions unanswered while coming off as rather talky with various instances of non-essential material. While those points are true, some of the dialogue is terrifically handled in sharing or introducing character attributes and advancing the story. Lee also utilizes some distracting editing techniques - such as repeatedly showing the last few seconds of a given shot in rapid succession - that do nothing for the offering.

He does, however, get strong efforts from his cast including Edward Norton ("Red Dragon," "Frida"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Punch Drunk Love," "Almost Famous") and Barry Pepper ("We Were Soldiers," "The Green Mile"). Norton, as usual, delivers a finally nuanced performance, yet can't completely overcome some character omissions and not entirely believable behavior (I just didn't buy him being a dealer).

The same holds true - although to a lesser extent -- for Hoffman and Pepper who are terrific as his lifelong friends who react differently to his plight. The likes of Brian Cox ("Adaptation," "The Ring"), Rosario Dawson ("Men in Black II," "The Adventures of Pluto Nash"), Anna Paquin ("Finding Forrester," "Almost Famous") and Tony Siragusa (making his debut) are all solid in their respective roles.

Perhaps it's because Lee is trying to cram so much into the film that some things were omitted, don't make sense or weren't fleshed out enough, but the result is a film that isn't as great as it might have been. Flawed but compelling and with good performances and some memorable moments, "25th Hour" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 23, 2002 / Posted January 10, 2003

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