25th Hour

Year: 2003
Studio: Touchstone
Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Spike Lee/Tobey Maguire
Cast: Edward Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox
Whatever you think about Spike Lee, you can't deny he's always got something to say.

His career up until now has seemed mainly to concern itself with the struggles and tribulations facing the urban African-American. Even his sweeping filmed biography of the life of Malcolm X dealt with issues of the American black's place in society.

He's also been the only American filmmaker to speak out about the glamourisation of 'blackness' being just another form of marketing, causing controversy by his public opinion about the likes of Quentin Tarantino and others continually 'cooling' the black race merely to push more materialism on rich white America.

He's a strong director with distinctive hallmarks and a filmmakers' style, but ironically, the hallmark that made his name (the black protagonist) has been increasingly absent from his movies of late. The fact that 25th Hour - being about young white kids - packs such an emotional punch is testament to his skill as a director and puts to rest accusations of single-minded black supremacy.

It's Monty Brogan's (Ed Norton) final day before a seven-year stretch in prison for drug dealing - a sentence he fears will break him.

He embarks on a low key 'what would you do on your last day alive' journey, reconciling with his father (Brian Cox - Adaptation and X Men 2), going for a last night out with his friends Jake (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper) and generally assessing his place in his native New York.

But it's hard work with fear strangling him. He can't bring himself to discuss it with his devoted girlfriend (Rosario Dawson). In fact he can barely bring himself to look in her eyes, partly because of the emotion he knows he's scared to feel, partly because of a nagging suspicion that she was the one who turned him in.

When all's said and done, 25th Hour is a statement about fear and loss, and Monty's plight is a parable for the city itself. Still gripped in the unease surrounding September 11 (the ruined site of the World Trade Centre features prominently in one scene), Lee is showing how New York - a city he plainly loves - is itself still hurt and scared to be in a world it now realises it can't control.

The friends that orbit Monty's world help paint the background to his life but despite stellar performances from Hoffman and Pepper (after a very inauspicious early career in turkeys like Battlefield Earth), 25th Hour isn't their story. As such, the subplot of Jake's romantic entanglement with a sexy student (kiwi Anna Paquin - X Men 2) has little to do with Monty's quest and doesn't need to be there.

Lee isn't afraid to say what he thinks and scatter his movies with potshots at hypocrisy and corruption. It'll irritate you if one of the things you dislike about his movies is his socio-political views, but Monty's dream sequence-like tirade against iconic New York stereotypes rounds up everything the locals love to hate about their town, including the religious institutions and the child sex scandals rocking them.

Lee's also much more comfortable with drama than comedy. His fluffier efforts like Girl 6 just don't have the same power, it's only when he's speaking to us about something serious - as in Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour - that he triumphs.

And, like in the underrated Summer of Sam, his sense for perfectly capturing the cultural landscape of a time is uncanny. The paranoid unease that still haunts New York because of September 11 is palpable in every scene.

The proceedings are let down by a tacked on and completely unnecessary final ten minutes. Too intelligent a director to awkwardly hammer a happy ending to the end of a movie, it's a mystery why it's even there.

But like a grand Unified Theory of Spike Lee, 25th Hour takes all his good points and leaves out (most of) his bad ones. This is the movie they said Gangs of New York was for Scorsese - a precursor to everything he's done right.

And in the hands of actors like Norton and Hoffman - fast cementing themselves as the finest of their generation - you'll be riveted to their journey all the way.

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