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Photograph by David Lee

Norton Futility: In '25th Hour,' Edward Norton plays a drug dealer who can't escape a trip to the slammer.

Prison Bound

Film noir '25th Hour' shows off director Spike Lee at his sharpest, angriest best

By Richard von Busack

NO ONE WITH a serious interest in film noir should miss director Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a long but immaculately fatalist study of a high-end drug dealer's last day of freedom. Lee has created something uncommon in a crime drama--a story that's powerful and not just attitudinal. It may be impossible to make a good modern film noir without a sense of injustice, but it is surprising how many directors try. They figure that elaborately profane street talk will cover up for lack of understanding of what it means when a life is wasted.

Caught with a kilo of heroin and a large stash of money, a middle-level dealer named Monty (Edward Norton) says his goodbyes before heading to prison for a seven-year term. While he's certain he's been fingered, Monty's not really interested in investigating who did it. Two other stories emerge about Monty's best pals from his prep-school days: Francis, a cynical Wall Street trader (Barry Pepper, the sniper in Saving Private Ryan), and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who teaches at their old school. Lee matches Monty's essentially victimless crime of selling drugs with Jacob's plight. The teacher is being teased half to death by a 17-year-old Lolita (Anna Paquin) in his literature class.

Paquin's Mary is the moist, baby-faced bad girl. Rosario Dawson plays that other film noir archetype: the beautiful slum girl who's loyal to her washed-up man. Her name is "Naturelle"; she's that natural woman Aretha sings about, obviously. When Lee tries to figure out how Monty picked up Naturelle, however, he draws a blank. He stages their meeting with her hanging out on a swing set, dressed in a porno-movie version of a Catholic schoolgirl's outfit. Dawson is a stunner, but Lee--who I feel doesn't trust women much in his movies--keeps her part underwritten. Otherwise, the film's juiciness is unfailing: Brian Cox, as Monty's dad, delivers another brilliant Cox cameo of regrets and ineffectuality; Tony Siragusa hams it up like Akim Tamiroff as a violently obese Ukranian gangster; and Isiah Whitlock Jr. is memorable as a DEA agent.

Norton's highlight is a rant delivered into a bathroom mirror--like Holden Caulfield, Monty is set off by seeing "fuck you" written as graffiti. Sept. 11 is part of the rage, Osama bin Laden's crime catalyzing the general hostility and hopelessness of city life. This scenes gives us Lee's strongest moment ever of confronting his own New York City-nurtured tribal hatreds. 25th Hour has its flaws, including a bloody fistfight that's plainly there to add some action (the film is almost free of violence otherwise). In the scene of a cop interrogation, Monty outlines his own defense strategy to his captors: a man entrusted with a kilo of heroin ought to be smarter than that. And someone should really toss Hoffman a towel. But 25th Hour is not only a gripping story but also a strong implicit protest against the war on drugs. Hard to remember, isn't it, when social protest was considered essential to a film noir? You have to go back decades.


25th Hour (R; 128 min.), directed by Spike Lee, written by David Benioff, photographed by Rodrigo Prieto and starring Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rosario Dawson, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.


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From the January 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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