Dir: Spike Lee. US 2002. 135mins

A cautionary tale about the consequences of knowingly breaking the law, 25th Hour contains a commanding performance by the supremely-talented Edward Norton that is likely to generate an Oscar nomination for the actor but not greatly increase the box office. Spike Lee's films are always a tough sell overseas, and while this one departs from the writer/director's usual formula in several significant ways - perhaps most obviously in that it features a completely white cast - there is little reason to suspect that anyone not already a committed fan will race to the theatre when it opens in the US on Dec 19.

From a commercial standpoint, 25th Hour also lacks any real story. More psychologically-minded audiences, however, may perceive that as a strength and embrace the film as a meditative study of a man struggling to face up to his responsibilities, as well as the effect these choices have on his friends.

The story takes place during one 24-hour period, the final hours of freedom for Monty Brogan (Norton), a kid from Bay Ridge, a working-class neighbourhood of New York City, who must surrender to federal authorities in the morning and begin a seven-year prison sentence for selling cocaine. Brogan spends his last night trying to reconcile with his father (Cox) and reconnect with his closest friends from childhood, prep school teacher Jacob (Hoffman) and Wall Street hustler Slaughtery (Pepper). Trying to be supportive but also give him space is his long-time girlfriend Naturelle (Dawson), who may be the one who tipped police off to his stash of drugs.

As the hours tick by, Brogan turns increasingly pensive, as if finally recognising and accepting responsibility for his wasted life. Frightened that he may not be mentally strong enough to handle prison, he struggles not to lose control of his emotions. It is not only the depth of feeling that Norton brings to the role which proves extraordinary; it is the nuanced way he slowly deflates before not only the audience's eyes, but also his own. He makes the audience care about a basically unsavoury character in a way that, for example, the protagonists of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind or Auto Focus did not.

Supporting cast is adequate to good (although Dawson disappoints), with a special nod to the always-electric Pepper, who first garnered attention in Saving Private Ryan. There is something impassioned about Pepper; a fire burns inside even his gentlest characters (such as Roger Maris in HBO's 61*). Here he offers another bruising, memorable performance.

Blanchard's score is one of the finest of the year, despite a few lapses into overly dramatic, even occasionally bland, territory, while ace cinematographer Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida, 8 Mile) continues to astonish with each new feature. The film's weaknesses include a racist tirade that Brogan delivers straight into the camera for no apparent reason other than to provide a M-E-S-S-A-G-E about the sins of bigotry and the folly of blaming others for one's own mistakes, and an overly-sentimental fantasy sequence at the end which tries too hard to be meaningful. Lee seems so intent on making his points that he does not trust his audience to see and feel things without spelling them out.

Prod co: 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks, Industry Entertainment, Gamut Films
US dist:
Buena Vista Pictures
Intl dist:
Exec prod:
Nick Wechsler
Spike Lee, Jon Kilik, Tobey Maguire and Julia Chasman
David Benioff, adapted from his novel
Rodrigo Prieto
Prod des:
James Chinlund
Barry Alexander Brown
Terence Blanchard
Main cast:
Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox