25th Hour (2002)

(In theaters, February 2003) Spike Lee detractors might be pleasantly surprised with this film, a low-key drama that feels like his least militant, yet most mature work to date. Actor demi-god Edward Norton stars as a convicted drug dealer spending one last day of freedom before heading to prison for seven years. Naturally, several plot lines come together during that last day as he says good-bye to family, friends and, er, “business acquaintances”. The rhythm is tepid, but handled nicely; there’s seldom a dull moment. It all builds to a strong conclusion, but a few set-pieces overshadow the narrative arc: an uninterrupted conversation over the wreckage of Ground Zero; a joyfully incorrect sequence in which Norton swears at New York’s population; a last-minute fantasy that threatens to cheapen the whole film. But it all holds together in an intriguing drama. Part of it we’ve seen before (Philip Seymor Hoffman’s arc is duller than his character), but most of it is intriguingly new; how do you say goodbye for seven years, maybe forever? The cast is up to the subtlety of the material, with particular kudos to Barry Pepper as a friend whose tough-love rhetoric hides profound guilt. (Babe-watchers should also note that Rosario Dawson has seldom looked better) This is the first film to confront the post-World Trade Center New York City, and if some shots feel gratuitous, at least it hasn’t shirked away from the challenge. All and all, it’s a solid film, worth a look without being spectacular.

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