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Review: A thoughtful, timely '25th Hour'

Great performances fill new Spike Lee film

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

25th Hour
Edward Norton plays a drug dealer about to go to jail in "25th Hour," directed by Spike Lee.

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(CNN) -- Spike Lee's new film "25th Hour" may be most notable for being the first major film to deal with New York City post-September 11. The plot has nothing to do with the terrorist attack or its aftermath, but the film matter-of-factly incorporates this hideous event into the city's historical fabric.

One scene is actually set in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero. Since the movie's theme is about a man's life being blasted away, the metaphor is obvious.

As he did in "Do the Right Thing" (1989) -- a film nominated for two Oscars -- Lee is once again tackling a story that takes place in one 24-hour period with "25th Hour." Based on a book by David Benioff, the movie stars Edward Norton as Monty Brogan, a Manhattan drug dealer who has just run out of luck. He's been busted and is on his way to spending seven long years in prison.

On his last day of freedom he's desperate to clean up, and shore up, some relationships from his past -- and present. His life in the fast lane has left some personal casualities in its wake, including his father, his two closest friends, and the woman he thinks he's in love with.

The result is a powerful -- if flawed -- story about redemption, hope and forgiveness that is perfectly underscored by the exquisite music provided by Terence Blanchard.

Mixed feelings

Norton and Lee make a great team. Both men are excellent storytellers and both share an emotional honesty that shines through on screen. In their hands, what could have been just another run-of-the-mill, unsavory, convicted drug dealer is turned into a sympathetic antihero. He may be getting exactly what he deserves, but nevertheless we root for his redemption until the closing credits.

25th Hour
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Jacob, a private-school teacher and a longtime friend of Norton's character.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper play Brogan's childhood buddies: Jacob, a shy private-school teacher, and Slaughtery, a loudmouthed Wall Street hustler, respectively.

Both Jacob and Slaughtery have mixed, complex feelings regarding their old friend. They've both stood aside and watched his descent into a life of crime, but they've also both benefited from the first-class treatment at restaurants and clubs that Brogan's shady but profitable career has provided. Now, with his life in ashes, they're not sure how to treat him, or how to handle his last day of freedom.

Rosario Dawson plays Naturelle Rivera, a young woman who has had a long and complex relationship with Brogan -- and who may or may not have turned him into the police, leading to his arrest and prison term. With previous roles in such duds as "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" and "Men In Black II," Dawson is in need of a break, and gets it with this excellent part. Her faithfulness -- or lack of it -- is a major plot point, and her character must keep Brogan, and the audience, guessing.

Brian Cox gives a multilayered performance as Brogan's father, James. He's a retired fireman who now owns a pub, which his son's ill-gotten money has helped to finance. He's torn by guilt over the fact that rather than keeping his son away from crime, he's actually encouraged the illegal activity by taking money from him. Their relationship is the most complex of the bunch and their scenes together are heartwrenching.

Academy Award-winning actress Anna Paquin plays a small role as a student who becomes entangled in the group's dynamic.

Sides of New York

Many of Lee's trademarks are front and center.

As with Martin Scorsese, New York City is Lee's location of choice, and what kind of Spike Lee movie would it be without some sort of speech on race? In the case of "25th Hour," the speech is a tirade delivered by Brogan in a nightclub bathroom, screaming ethnic obscenities into a mirror. The shocking scene's payoff occurs later in the film as part of Brogan's journey towards redemption.

The performances by Norton, Hoffman and Pepper are all excellent, and Cox (in only two major scenes) is the heart and soul of the film.

Basically, "25th Hour" is a new spin on the old question: What would you do if you only had 24 hours left to live? Brogan's choices, and his friends' and family's reactions to them, make a compelling and thoughtful film.

"25th Hour" opened in selected markets December 19 and goes into wide release Friday. It is rated R.

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