Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is a young, intelligent New Yorker, making a very healthy living as a drug dealer for a Ukranian gang. Monty's luck runs out when he busted by the DEA and he is sentenced to seven years in prison. Monty spends his last 24 hours of freedom with those closest to him – his father James (Brian Cox), girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and best friends Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Like Woody Allen, Spike Lee is so closely associated with New York that although the director often tells stories that could be told in other locales, the city seems to closely mirror the mental and physical states of his characters. If the tangled love lives of Allen's signature film Manhattan were set against a chaotic yet romantic image of the city, then in 25th Hour, the shock and anger of a town still coming to terms with September 11th becomes the perfect backdrop for Monty Brogan's last day as a free man.
This is the first film in which Lee has not had a writing credit; David Benioff has adapted his own novel, and while the book was written while the World Trade Centre was still standing, Lee ensures that the film is utterly contemporary, from the opening credits (beautifully shot by Amores Perros cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto), imposed over the dazzling beams of light that marked the first anniversary of that terrible day, to the location of Frank's flat, literally overlooking Ground Zero. But given that Lee is not always the most subtle of directors, the references to 9/11 are sensitively and carefully woven into the script – the film is not about 9/11, but makes it utterly clear that its effects still inform much of daily life in New York.
The idea of setting a film over a single 24-hour period is not a new one for Lee – 1989's Do the Right Thing also took place in a single day. But where that earlier picture focused on the inhabitants of an entire neighbourhood, 25th Hour has just five main characters, their relationship to one another forming the core of the film. Monty is a streetwise kid from a tough Irish neighbourhood, who had the brains to get further than most his peers, albeit through an illegal route. Benioff and Lee are careful to neither condone Monty's occupation nor pass any moral judgment; having a convicted heroin dealer as a central character is a tough sell – make him too likable and you end up glamourising his dangerous, corrupt lifestyle; make him too ruthless and you're left with a deeply unsympathetic central figure. Luckily, as in Fight Club, Edward Norton proves adept at giving a real edge to a generally likable man. There's a tremendous scene in which Monty launches into a tirade against every racial and occupational group he can think of while staring at his own reflection in a bathroom mirror – blacks, Jews, Koreans, Russians, Wall Street traders, the Catholic church, Islamic fundamentalists – before turning on himself and the way in which he's messed up his life: "Fuck you Monty Brogan" he spits. Lee doesn't need to condemn Monty, because at this late hour Monty himself realises his fatal mistake – he simply got too greedy.
Ironically, because his fate has already been decided, as a character Monty isn't nearly as interesting his two childhood friends, fast-talking womanising city trader Frank and nervous, emotionally repressed teacher Jakob. This trio really have nothing in common other than the fact they were friends as kids, but Monty's impending departure from their lives inevitably draws them close. We learn more about Jakob than Frank, and there is an amusing subplot concerning his unhealthy desire for 17-year-old student Mary (Anna Paquin). But both are having a tough time realising Monty will soon be gone – Frank is convinced they may never see him again (at the same time trying to reassure Monty with promises of a professional future together once he gets out that they both know will never happen), while Jakob naively believes than life will return to normal seven years down the line. Hoffman and Pepper are superb – Hoffman's character is one he has visited before, but both have a chemistry that makes you believe they have known each other all their lives. Meanwhile the ubiquitous Cox is as reliable as ever, warm but aloof and unwilling to condemn his son's crimes – partly because he was happy to take Monty's drug money when he needed cash to clear his debts and keep his bar open.
Most of Lee's trademarks are here – a sweeping orchestral score from Terence Blanchard (Lee is quite old-fashioned in the way uses his soundtrack, scoring many dramatic scenes where other directors might omit music), Barry Alexander's Brown inventive, punchy editing, restless camerawork and a vaguely theatrical air to proceedings. One of the faults to which even the director's best films can be prone is unsatisfactory endings; witness unnecessary codas to Malcolm X, Bamboozled and Jungle Fever. Here, Lee concocts an extravagant fantasy sequence in which Monty imagines an alternative life that awaits him if he runs instead of going to prison – it starts intriguing then builds to the frankly silly, but Lee just about saves the ending by cutting to a moving final shot of Monty back in reality. Occasional moments of melodrama aside then, 25th Hour is a powerful piece of film-making, tautly written, morally complex and blessed with tremendous performances.
Talented, prolific American director who has courted more controversy than most with his out-spoken views and influenced an entire generation of black film-makers. Lee made his impressive debut with the acerbic sex comedy She's Gotta Have It in 1986, while many consider his study of New York race relations Do the Right Thing to be one of the best films of the 80s.
Lee's films tend to mix edgy comedy and biting social drama, and range from the superb (Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam) to the less impressive (Mo Better Blues, Girl 6), but are always blessed with passion and intelligence. Lee has acted in many of his films and has also directed a wide range of music videos, commercials and documentaries. Inside Man saw a largely successful try at the thriller genre, Oldboy was a misguided remake, but he welcomed some of his best reactions of his career to true crime story BlacKkKlansman.