Never one for half-measures, Spike Lee has boldly configured 25th Hour based on a novel by David Benioff, who also wrote the screenplay as the definitive post-9/11 New York City film, announcing his lofty intentions with a startling opening credit sequence: a montage of the spotlight World Trade Center memorial that briefly lit up the skies from Ground Zero as the solemn clean-up neared its completion. Set to a mournful melody from longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, it heaps an insanely heavy load on what was, on the page, an unfussy, cautionary tale of a successful drug dealer attempting to cram a lifetime of reflection and regret into his last day of freedom before submitting to a seven-year jail sentence. It's a brilliantly realized sequence that is at once breathtaking and troubling. Though his moxie is never less than admirable, once the lights go out on the memorial, accompanied by Lee's title card, there's a sense, backed up by a pair of recent artistic debacles Bamboozled and Summer of Sam that the film is doomed to failure, which is what makes 25th Hour all the more remarkable. Though swinging for the fences as usual, Lee connects on every pitch, finding the outfield bleachers with astonishing regularity and offering the all-too-rare sight of a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Why this film didn't garner more praise at the end of 2002 should be a point of shame for the nation's critics and the publicists at Touchstone Pictures. Ostensibly the story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), the aforementioned dope pusher facing hard time in the state pen, Lee turns his final 24 hours into a farewell to the New York City that ceased to exist on the morning of September 11th, 2001. As Monty bumps around the city, devoting his time to his last partition-free moments with his father (the ubiquitous Brian Cox), his young Puerto Rican girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and his two best childhood friends, timid schoolteacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and brash stockbroker Frank (a sensational Barry Pepper), he reflects ruefully on his squandered potential. Most notably, Monty obsesses on the day his domestic splendor was shattered when a trio of smug DEA agents came calling, quickly discovering a healthy stash of heroin and cash in the cushions of his couch as if they were tipped off. In hindsight, Monty knows he should've got out of the game while he was riding high. "I got greedy," he confides to Frank. Interestingly, Monty seems the least concerned of all the film's characters about who betrayed him. His loyal, English-mangling right hand man, Kostya (a surprisingly effective Tony Siragusa, who's ably made the transition from Baltimore Ravens lineman to endearing character actor), is insistent that it was Naturelle who sold him down the river, but while this has clearly driven a wedge into their relationship, Monty's primary focus is on living it up at his favorite nightclub for one last night, and calling in a crucial favor from Frank that just might ensure his survival on the inside.
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Staying largely faithful to fellow New Yorker Benioff's sharply written screenplay, in 25th Hour Lee avoids the ostentatious, tangential clutter of his previous films, enabling him to concentrate his considerable visual talents on the story at hand. True, the director has immersed the picture in a massively audacious context as if the opening credit sequence wasn't enough, Frank's apartment overlooks Ground Zero but Lee never gets carried away, which is due precisely to his immense respect for Benioff's script (a sentiment Lee expresses in his muted, but interesting, commentary track). In fact, the one classic Spike flourish actually is primarily a Benioff creation: the incendiary "Fuck You" monologue delivered into a restroom mirror by Monty that colorfully slanders every section of New York City's populace. In recognizing this affinity for the source material, Lee has, for the first time since Do the Right Thing, remained locked-in, and the results are as extraordinary and unforgettable as that previous triumph. 25th Hour is a deeply felt masterpiece that deepens on subsequent viewings, as well as a profoundly humanistic work that defines the New Yorker in all of us the one born when Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Buena Vista presents 25th Hour in a fine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with terrific Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. For a film practically disowned by the studio in its theatrical release, the disc is surprisingly rich with extras, including a featurette titled "The Evolution of an American Filmmaker" (22 min.) that serves as a relatively insightful tour through Lee's tumultuous career; two relaxed, but very interesting solo commentaries with Lee and Benioff, deleted scenes, and a somber "Ground Zero: A Tribute" featurette. Keep-case.