Well above average character studies put this drama a few notches above the norm.
A film opening with the sound effects of a dog being beaten is one that can't help but grab your attention, and through dint of effort and charisma displayed by an exemplary cast it manages to a fairly good job of sustaining it throughout the fairly lengthy 135 minute running time.
Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) happens upon the poor mutt, and is impressed with it's determination to live even after a 'pounding'. He resolves to get the snarling injured beast to a vet, much to the chagrin of his portly Russian mafia friend, Kostya. The point of it all is to show that Monty's a really nice guy. A really, really nice guy. Assuming of course you ignore his drug dealing.
The D.E.A. choose not to ignore his drug dealing, busting his pasty white ass after finding a few sizeable bricks of heroin inside Monty's sofa. Due to New York's harsh drugs laws, he's sentenced to a seven-year stretch in an overcrowded prison, where it seems more than likely that he'll be picking up a lot of soap in the showers, if you get my drift. This no doubt contributes greatly to his current distracted, near suicidal state. All this is told in a flashback while sitting on said sofa with his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). This is yet another non-linear timeline story, but the flashbacks and reminisces here are far more appropriate than the way it's normally shoehorned into stories unnecessarily by directors struggling to make their tepid source material seem a little deeper (see Daredevil).
Monty has grown increasingly distant with Naturelle, for reasons she isn't quite sure of. Despite his morose mood, he's going out for one last night on the town with his friends, ending with a requested meeting in a trendy mob-run nightclub with local kingpin Senka. He has one other person to see before this hectic night though, his father.
You may be wondering how Monty is allowed to wander about despite already being found guilty. His father, James (Brian Cox, who is also seemingly in every film around at the moment) an ex-fireman, now bar owner, has bailed him out on a bond until he's due to start his sentence. James blames himself for Monty's predicament, blaming his own drinking and loss of his wife for rendering him incapable of helping once Monty started running with the Russian mobsters and pushing drugs. Monty pooh-poohs this, saying he knew what he was getting into. While visiting the men's room, he goes on a (imagined) rant against New York and the world in general to an audience of a mirror in one of the defining scenes of the movie. Norton reminds us again of why he's probably this generation's finest actor in this tirade against his friends, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Irish, Arabs, Jews and every conceivable minority before ending at the true target of his hatred, himself. He knows he had it all, and threw it away.
Monty heads out to see his friends, who are already waiting in the bar. Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a struggling high school teacher, with a severe case of guilt over being the son of wealthy Jewish parents. Jakob seems emotionally stunted, and is growing worryingly obsessed with one of his students Mary (Anna Paquin, who you may know better as Rouge off X-Men>). Quite why is baffling, Jakob later admits to Frank that she isn't beautiful in the classical sense, and is portrayed variously as dumb, slutty, ditsy and hopped up on goofballs, none of which seemed particularly attractive.
Frank Slaughtery(Barry Pepper) is poles apart from Jakob. He's a stylish, high-flying Wall Street broker with a high rise apartment which overlooks Ground Zero, allowing Frank and Jakob to have a conversation concerning it over the course of which we learn nothing bar that it happened. Frank has a more realistic view on what happens in Monty's future that Jakob. Frank knows that if he goes in, Monty will never come out, certainly not in a form that any of his friends would recognise. Frank and Jakob were all too well aware of how Monty was making his living, and feel the same guilt that James and Naturelle do over Monty's situation. They could have perhaps stepped in and told him to stop, but chose the path of least resistance and let him continue down his path.
While Frank and Jakob are waiting, Jakob clumsily explains his plight, using the 'I have this friend...' method, which is always doomed to failure. Frank shoots down his declarations of love, telling him to wait a while. Frank gets most of the snappy oneliners in the film ('Who are you, R-Kelly?', 'I'm Irish, I can't get drunk'), which is necessary to bring a touch of levity to a film which could easily have become a chore to watch, being heavily based on character interaction in the absence of any escapable crisis. Monty's resigned to going to jail, this film is just about his (and his friends') reaction to it.
That seems to sell it short, as it's a very well executed film. Despite a minor subplot about how the D.E.A. knew exactly where the drugs are, there's no promise of any action packed finale, just a nice series of character studies and the believable interaction between them. All of the relationships here are so well written that it does seem like Hoffman and Pepper grew up together, and that they care for Norton as a brother would. The last favour that Monty asks of Frank is shocking and fairly brutal, and the execution of the act manages to show a great deal of compassion despite the incongruous nature of it.
It's not perfect, though. We never see Monty pushing crack to kids or peddling any of his foul wares, because that would get in the way of him being a nice young man and how awful it is that he's going to jail. Given that the film is devoted to Monty's last night of freedom before incarceration it seems odd that it doesn't show and of his misdemeanours that landed him there in any detail. Not that it hurts the movie as this is not a tale of redemption, but it's a little disingenuous to continually have people talk about how darn nice he is with only Frank pointing out that his apartment and suchlike were paid for by the misery of others, and Monty only showing remorse due to being caught, rather than ashamed.
It's perhaps not surprising that mention is made of the devastation of the attack on the Twin Towers, given Spike Lees noted affiliation with the city. Presumably it's an attempt to show how New Yorkers feel about the tragedy, but at best it merely gets in the way of the real story. At worst, it could be viewed as a cynical attempt to give Monty's plight a little more tragic overtone by hooking it up to a bona fide horror story. I found it more of the former than the latter, just annoying rather than disgusting. Nothing of substance is said about 9-11, the only exception being Monty's inclusion of it in his rant against the world. Even then it just portrays anger towards Al-Quieda, both predictable and understandable, but says nothing about the city's healing process. Perhaps there isn't one. Only those that live there, or were affected by 9-11 are placed to comment about this, and I am not.
Spike Lee has chosen a strange method normally only seen in Van Damme films after delivering that jumping spin kick he always does, repeating said event a few times over for additional impact, but in this case it's for far more mundane situations, such as hugging. It's a disconcerting and jarring error in an otherwise slickly directed affair. Going to a 135 minute running time is a brave move in a film with nearly no action, and it almost pulls it off. I admit, to my shame, that my attention did wander for about ten minutes near the end, so perhaps it's a touch too long.
It's all about relationships in the end, in this film as in life. And 25th Hour delivers a compelling, believable account of five people struggling with their own situations and how it affects the others. The ending resolves any questions brought up in the start while in effect letting you invent your own version of Monty's fate. Brian Cox narrates one version with passion and empathy showing why he's considered one of the best voice actors in the business, in addition to his fine acting reputation.
In the final analysis it has a few niggles which drop it down from a classic status, and the seemingly pointless referencing of 9-11 will date it badly as time passes. That and a few very minor niggles aside, this is a polished, well-told tale that sticks within some well defined boundaries without ever resorting to the string of clich?s it could so easily have been.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Barry Pepper (Frank Slaughtery)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jakob Elinsky)
Rosario Dawson (Naturelle Rivera)
Anna Paquin (Mary D'Annunzio)
Brian Cox (James Brogan)