Apparently, you can take Spike Lee out of New York, but you can't take New York out of Spike Lee. Almost as much as Woody Allen, Lee makes movies that are in some way or another tributes to the Big Apple, yet what makes 25th Hour different is its post-9/11 topicality. While most films have absurdly tiptoed around the tragedy (by, for example, digitally removing the twin towers from already shot footage), it appears we're finally getting pictures that aren't afraid to address the issue. The Sigourney Weaver-Anthony LaPaglia drama The Guys, a 2002 limited release that will open wider this year, is a moving tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives on that fateful morning; 25th Hour, by comparison, isn't centrally about 9/11, yet the specter of that day hangs over the entire film. Characters view the decimated Ground Zero; they discuss the tragedy; they reflect on it. Watching these scenes, and noting the presence of Bruce Springsteen's "The Fuse" (from his 9/11 album The Rising) on the soundtrack, it's hard to shake the feeling that this was the movie Lee really wanted to make, one that explored the crisis in depth and how it deeply affected the very soul of the city.
Instead, the focus of 25th Hour, based on a novel by David Benioff that was written before 9/11 (Benioff also wrote the script), is Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a drug dealer on the verge of being sent to prison for seven years. Monty's dilemma is that he needs to find out who ratted on him, thus leading to his imminent incarceration -- could it really have been his sweetheart Naturelle (Rosario Dawson)? This angle is the least interesting part of the picture; more compelling are the scenes involving his relationship with his dad (Brian Cox), and his camaraderie with his two disparate childhood pals, one now a slick Wall Street hotshot (Barry Pepper), the other a nebbishy high school teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who's lusting after one of his students (Anna Paquin).
Lee is starting to rival Brian DePalma in his inclination to borrow bits and pieces from his own past films -- there's a sequence with Norton ranting in front of a mirror that directly rips off a similar scene from Do the Right Thing -- yet 25th Hour also shows the maverick moviemaker tackling new things as well. In addition to marking the first time Lee's made a movie with a primarily all-Caucasian cast, there are also several scenes among the jittery jumping around that reveal the director in a more pensive, silent mood than normal (these sequences -- indeed, the whole movie -- are given a boost via Terence Blanchard's excellent score). Then there's the bravura lengthy sequence that closes the picture, a "what if?" flight of fancy that's guaranteed to divide audience members over its sentimental bent. Granted, this portion may not completely work (though it does more often than not), yet it reaffirms the image of Spike Lee as a cinematic iconoclast -- and one who steadfastly refuses to take prisoners.