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25-to-Life

 

25th Hour

Spike Lee, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.0

 

 

Posted: January 12, 2003

By Laurence Station

During the opening credits for Spike Lee's 25th Hour there's a wonderful series of shots of the Tribute in Light -- which first appeared six months after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (8 Mile, Frida) does beautiful photography, conveying both the majesty and somber nature of the display. It's powerful stuff. Unfortunately, that proves the highlight of 25th Hour, an overlong, tedious, uninvolving look at a convicted drug dealer's last day of freedom. Working from a script by David Benioff (adapting his own novel), Lee inexplicably and insultingly attempts to connect the dots between the gargantuan public tragedies that stunned America in 2001 with an uninteresting felon who deserves what he gets, no matter how earnestly he attempts to feel sorry for himself or whine about how badly he screwed up. Granted, Lee probably included the post-9-11 shots to be topical with the New York of today, but, no matter how unintentional, one can't help but align the attacks with the story being told. As an addition to the original source material, it proves to be a colossal distraction.

25th Hour tells the story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a low level drug dealer who got busted by the DEA, refused to rat out the bigger fish, and is about to be sent upriver for seven years. Monty's suspicious that his live-in girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), set him up -- though no rational reason for him to question her loyalty is offered. Of course, Monty's Russian mobster friend Kostya (former Pro Football player Tony Siragusa, who as an actor is a heck of a nose tackle) is planting seeds of doubt about Naturelle in Monty's ear. Now why would a mobster try and convince Monty someone other than, say, the mob set him up? Such stunning lapses in common sense typify the film's fundamentally flawed logic.

Monty spends his final twenty-four hours tying up loose ends. He visits his father (Brian Cox) and attempts to pack up emotional baggage from his childhood. He gets together with lifelong friends, investment banker Francis (Barry Pepper) and teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), for one last night on the town. He mulls whether to skip out on his sentence, sacrificing his beloved New York for a fugitive's freedom. (Considering the opinions of everyone in the movie, Monty would definitely be better off running: Prison is seen as a place where a clean-cut, good-looking guy like Monty would be appreciated for all the wrong reasons.)

So when morning comes and Monty has to report upstate, what does he do? There should be tension leading up to this moment -- a sense that he's genuinely wrestling with the dilemma of whether to run or do his time. But there's no tension to be had, because Monty, aside from being unlikable, is unrelentingly dull, his friends a bore, his relationship with Naturelle flat. The Russian mobsters are the most colorful characters here, but only in a stock, cartoonish Hollywood fashion. The actors are simply stuck with bad dialogue from a poorly structured script. A pointless subplot involving Jacob and a sexy student (Anna Paquin), who'll apparently do anything for an A, comes across as a desperate attempt to fill up Monty's final hours with something approaching dramatic momentum. This desperation is compounded by such heavy-handed symbolism as the Cool Hand Luke poster hanging in Monty's apartment, and a scene in which Francis and Jacob discuss Monty's bleak future while gazing down at Ground Zero. Coupled with an embarrassingly lame monologue wherein Monty goes off on the city's myriad ethnic groups (all the more grating considering Lee's similar, and much more effective, rant in his masterful Do the Right Thing), these flaws pad 25th Hour to what seems like five times its titular length. And a too jarring, ham-fisted, funeral dirge of a score by usually dependable composer Terence Blanchard doesn't help matters any.

If Lee had simply stuck with Monty attempting to atone for his sins, 25th Hour might have been a halfway decent film. Instead, he harps on the race issue, as if his fans won't accept a Spike Lee joint that fails to mention the differences in people and how wrong bigotry is. And implying parallels between the deaths of 3,000 innocent people and a seven-year sentence for a drug dealer -- as if Monty's suffering somehow compares with even a single lost life on September 11th -- is patently offensive. Monty gets off easy. The families of the attacks got saddled with life sentences.

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