Scripter David Benioff adapts his own novel in this story of friendship, loyalty and love as we meet Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton) 24 hours before he is to turn himself in to prison officials for a seven-year stint for drug dealing. With just a day left in the life he has known Monty has some critical choices to make before the "25th Hour."
The film opens as Monty stops his vintage muscle car to inspect a badly beaten dog lying by the road. Although his partner, Ukrainian-born Kostya (Tony Siragusa), insists that they have to attend an important meeting, Brogan packs the dog in the trunk and takes the injured animal to a vet for treatment. Flash ahead as Monty walks his canine friend, now dubbed Doyle, and we learn that the man is heading to jail and it is his last 24 hours before he has to give himself up to serve time following a drug bust. He is definitely not looking forward to the prospect of seven years of incarceration and has planned his last day to be with his live-in girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and his two best friends, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper).
Jacob met Monty in school as teenagers where, even then, Brogan was selling pot to the other students. This is the Montgomery that Jake is used to and he has long accepted his friend's illegal dealings. Frank, on the other hand, has been Brogan's best buddy since they were three years old and has had to live with Monty's chosen life style. Frank, as such, is much more critical of his friend and disappointed that he threw away his potential for success in the straight world. Now, Monty's friends commiserate over his upcoming plight and their feelings come to the fore. Jake declares that "I'll see him again" and will wait, loyally, until his friend is released from incarceration. Frank is more pragmatic and understands that a 7-year stint in prison will change Montgomery forever. "He's gone," Frank flatly states.
As Jacob and Frank prepare for their last evening with Monty - Jake teaches high school literature and Frank is an investment broker - the soon-to-be-prisoner makes his own preparations. Naturelle is distraught over the upcoming incarceration but puts her concern on a back burner for Monty's last day. Monty has his doubts over his girlfriend's loyalty, especially when Kostya insinuates that she may have been the one to sell him out to the DEA. (There is a brief flashback to the day of the bust when the arrogant DEA guys, led by agent Flood (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), bust Monty in his home, obviously with information provided by someone close to the drug dealer.) Monty is also summoned to appear before his underworld boss Uncle Nikolai (Levani) for reasons unknown. Everything and everyone come together later that night at Nikolai's club.
"25th Hour" is a character driven, rather than plot driven, tale that focuses on its players. Edward Norton, as central character Monty, anchors the film with his tough, pragmatic persona that is tempered with an underlying kindness and warmth that is reserved for his father (Brian Cox), lover and friends (and, of course, Doyle the dog). He will, when necessary, show the viciousness that his business requires but you feel that he should give up his sleazy career for his own good - if it isn't already to late. Norton's performance reps a return to his previous form following his thoroughly mediocre performances in "Death to Smoochie" and "Red Dragon."
The supporting cast rates as good on up. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of America's best and most underrated character actors in the business. As Jake Elinsky he is studious, quiet mannered and, truth be know, harbors a secret crush on one of his students, Mary D'Annunzio (Anna Paquin). He is also fiercely loyal to Monty and stands by him, no matter what. Barry Pepper is superb as Francis Xavier Slaughtery, a man from the poor side of the tracks who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made something of himself in the legitimate business world. It makes perfect sense that he would be disappointed and negative toward his lifelong best friend who left the straight and narrow. Frank realizes Monty's potential and it palpably troubles him that his friend is a purveyor of addiction, but he loves the guy nonetheless.
The rest of the supporting cast is also solid. Rosario Dawson gives a layered perf to her character Naturelle. She is a woman that has some real problems with her boyfriend's chosen profession but also enjoys the perks of his labor's fruits, as Frank is readily willing to point out. The chemistry between Norton and Dawson makes their relationship feel genuine. Anna Paquin, as 17-year old Mary, is a sexy little minx who uses her pretty looks and sexuality to get what she wants, especially from her teacher, Jacob. Brian Cox gives complexity as Monty's dad, a retired firefighter-turned-pub owner. James Brogan loves his son and feels responsible for his being a drug dealer. He took money from Monty to keep his own business alive and sees the blood from the drug money on his own hands. Ex-NFL player Tony Siragusa makes a splash in his debut as the heavily accented henchman, Kostya.
"25th Hour" may not be the total work that we are used to from Spike Lee - the director most often scribes his own pictures, among other filmmaking duties, but not here - but he does leave his imprint firmly on the film. He uses his patented dolly shot a few times, but unlike his previously employment of the technique (which I, personally, find annoying), it works effectively here. Lee works Benioff's script like a maestro playing an artist's music. In one scene, as Monty stares at his image in a men's room mirror, his reflection begins a soliloquy of hate against all, despite race, color or creed, that is the his way of venting his frustration and others for his fate. Lee bookends the monologue with a visual sequence toward the end that reverses Monty's earlier tirade.
The use of post-9/11 New York City is effective, especially in a scene in Frank's apartment as he and Jake discuss Monty's lot. Outside is the work site of Ground Zero that is a powerful and matter of fact that is a reminder of how our world has changed - much like Monty's is about to.
Techs befit the film with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (the "Amores Perros" lenser is having a heck of a year with "Frida" and "8 Mile" under his belt, too) complementing Lee's filmmaking style. Production design by James Chinlund uses NYC to good effect. The score, by Terence Blanchard, is uneven, sometimes haunting and effective and, at other times, annoying and obtrusive.
A Spike Lee film is always something to look forward to. He doesn't always hit his target (like with "Bamboozled"), but he does with "25th Hour." I give it a B+.
Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, "Red Dragon") is a great guy and a scrapper, just like the horribly abused dog he saves and names Doyle as the film begins. His friends, Slaughtery (Barry Pepper, "Knockaround Guys") and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Red Dragon") love him dearly, but regret having allowed him to become successful - as a drug dealer. Slaughtery also suspects Monty's loving girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, "Men in Black II"), for having blown the whistle that resulted in a seven year jail term, and makes Monty begin to doubt Naturelle himself. On his last day of freedom, Monty contemplates the "25th Hour."
Novelist David Benioff adapts his novel about the 'what might have been' of Monty Brogan's life and director Spike Lee uses September 11 to add a parallel for the city Brogan's spent it in in their joint melancholy reflection. A tour de force of ensemble acting, "25th Hour" explores the responsibilities of relationships.
Brogan spends his last day preparing for a party that Kostya (Tony Siragusa, HBO's "Inside the NFL") insists he must attend at Uncle Nikolai's club. He visits Jacob at his job teaching teenagers, rounds up Slaughtery and asks Naturelle to wear her silver dress. He has dinner with his widowed dad (Brian Cox, "The Ring") at the bar his dad owns (and now rues having saved with his son's drug money), then heads with his friends to the club owned by the Brighton Beach Russian gangsters who supplied his merchandise. Monty and his friends will each have a revelation during their night of decadent partying with the oldest relationship undergoing the most strenuous test.
Benioff establishes male friendships in the present, while building the background of Monty and Naturelle in flashbacks. We see Slaughtery on the job as a successful trader while Jacob sweats resisting the charms of student Mary D'Annuzio (Anna Paquin, "X-Men"). Monty's own narration fills in the gaps about his father 'with his endless grief' and the city he grew up in, a bigoted soliloquy played to a shaving mirror.
Nikolai's club is an exclusive joint and Jacob is alarmed when Mary spies him and begs for his influence in getting her in. Monty laughs it off and includes her, and soon the group is ensconced in a private booth drinking champagne. As true feelings are made known and alternate plans made for Monty, dawn and dad appear to take Monty into incarceration or...
Spike Lee adds to Benioff's story by making New York City a true character in his ensemble. The film opens with the twin laser lights which memorialized the 6th month since 9/11 also symbolizing hope and redemption in Monty's future, just as the excavation at ground zero below Slaughtery's apartment can be seen as a reflection of the guilt he feels over his friend's wrong turn. Lee represents all the boroughs of New York City and when Brogans Jr. and Sr. cross its boundary, it allows Monty's dad to conjecture an alternate reality.
Norton leads the ensemble as a man whose bravado gives way to fear and doubt as his hours slip by. His initial confidence is lost, but restored somewhat by love. He's a natural charmer who coasted on the easy life of the streets until his luck ran out. The underrated Barry Pepper is a dynamo as Brogan's oldest friend who alternately envies his lifestyle and feels guilty about it. Pepper projects this expertly in the way he lashes out at Naturelle, who clearly he admires. The ubiquitous Seymour Hoffman is the nice guy underachiever - Pepper's opposite (the two are hilarious together when Pepper presents his percentage theory on men's success with woman, putting Jacob in the 62nd percentile). Jacob's conundrum with Mary is beautifully played by both. Hoffman is a sweating mess of anxiety while Paquin makes Mary old enough to use her sex appeal on Jacob but too young to deal with it when she gets results. Dawson gives Naturelle a lovely dignity and concern, yet she also must look inward when Slaughtery's accusations cut deep. Cox embodies Monty's earlier characterization of him. NFL player Tony Siragusa is a natural as the hearty Russian bodyguard who mangles English phrases.
Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto is no stranger to capturing gritty city street life, as evidenced by "Amores Perros" and "8 Mile." His crisp blue-black nighttime shots make one feel the bight in the air, while his colorful flashbacks give a warmth to a blossoming love affair. Lee, working with Prieto for the first time, finally makes his signature dolly shots work in context, with one of Paquin dancing on ecstasy juxtaposed with another of Jacob in a stupor.
In "25th Hour" we spend 24 hours with a man at a crossroads. When he passes, his life is as of the ashes left in the air of lower Manhattan.
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