From a director who is more concerned with sending messages from his
celluloid soapbox than he is about dramatic integrity, comes this modern
tragedy of a drug dealer who has been ratted out, is convicted, and faces his
first prison term with fear and trepidation.
When we first meet Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), he and Kostya Novotny (Tony
Siragusa) are en route to a nighttime drug meet with Kostya's mob boss. That
Monty has chosen to stop when he sees an injured dog tells us something about
his unpredictable, compulsive nature, but when he risks the teeth of the
snapping canine in order to get it to an animal hospital, we are told even
more about this dope dealer with personal habits and values that are a bit
unusual for people in his line of work.
In the next scene, Monty is leisurely walking the dog, now fully recovered
from its injuries. Monty is talking to himself about getting out of the
business. But, when his crib is tossed and the DEA agents know that his
stash and bricks of dope are hidden inside the pads of a couch, he knows he's
been fingered. The big question then, is by whom?
Since he won't believe his closest pals, high school teacher Jakob Elinsky
(Philip Seymour Hoffman) and wall street arbitrageur Frank Slaughtery (Barry
Pepper) could possibly do such a thing, his biggest suspicion falls on
live-in girlfriend Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson). But to have that
suspicion confirmed would be a torture he can't bring himself to face, given
his love for her and the incomprehensibility of such an act. As far as we
can see, her devotion to him is complete and would allow for no such
He follows what leads he can to track down the informant while refusing to
become one himself, as the agents make offers for information he may be able
to provide about his mob associates.
The elongated story encompasses the support from his circle of friends and
the strains to his relationship with Naturelle. Then, a face off with the
mob guys turns out to resolve the mystery of the tipster with considerable
finality but leaves him with a countdown to the 25th hour -- the one when he
departs for prison. Helping him deal with it is James Brogan, his retired
fireman father (Brian Cox) who is ready to help his son in any way he can,
including a plan to escape incarceration.
In the interim, we go into the problem of a sexy student precocious in the
ways of using her wiles to lobby her teacher for better grades. In this case
it's nubile, hormone arousing, Mary D'Annunzio (Anna Paquin) coming on to
clumsy, socially inept Jakob.
Norton takes us through the travails of his fallen hero with calm assurance
and considerable skill. Barry Pepper is an equally fine casting, affording
his role as much tense comprehensibility as the erratic writing allows.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actor who seems to be working on his
performance, deciding where to go with his moments while he's in the
scene, a troubling presence in any ensemble. Rosario Dawson is as natural as
her character name implies, with all the believability and beauty to
brighten a script that wanders and lapses.
In one scene worthy of fast forwarding, Monty lashes out with a diatribe
driven by stereotyped ethnic attitudes. This is the message department of the
Spike Lee film who, apparently, couldn't find a way to inject his political
drumbeat into the story organically. He must have been frustrated, in this
outing, with his story's inability to support his trademark dissatifactions,
such as the better designed for this purpose, "Malcolm X". The attempt to
find a way to push his cultural notions may explain the meandering nature of
the action, sometimes seeming to lose itself amidst the high rises and
cement, offering up an unconvincing argument about the sharing of guilt among
those who didn't do anything, except to enjoy the benefits of ill-gotten gain
without a caution for the consequence.
But, while we may abhor Lee's inevitable "message from the sponsor", and the
ambling, padded 134 minute screenplay (by David Benioff from his novel),
there are flashes here and there of touching moments and telling
conceptualization. One of these is the insightful realization of the escape
plan as a cinematic way of portraying what would be going through anyone's
mind on their way to lock down. Good, but no Steven Soderbergh. Or, is Lee
trying to grab the luster of Martin Scorcese?
~~ Jules Brenner