Cinema Signal:

The 25th Hour
novel by David Benioff

. "25th Hour"

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 betrayal.

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?

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Edward Norton and Rosario Dawson

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