by Ed Symkus

Monty Brogan is a likeable guy. He's got a good heart, keeps close friends, treats his father well, has a loving relationship with his girlfriend. At the beginning of Spike Lee's newest ode to New York, The 25th Hour, he even rescues an angry, beaten dog. But Monty has another, less likeable side, too. He's a drug dealer, and he never thinks twice about the people he's selling his wares to -- even if they're young kids on a school playground.

Somewhere along the line, someone who knows Monty -- he's really not sure who -- told the cops exactly where he keeps his cash and his stash. And now Monty is getting ready to do his seven years up the river.

In a typically terrific performance, Edward Norton plays Monty as a multi-layered character. Norton is close to riveting nearly every time he's onscreen. This holds true even in the already over-praised "bathroom mirror" sequence, which has him flinging virulent epithets against everybody and everything that comes to his mind. It's a scene that reeks of hardcore Spike Lee-ness.

But when Norton is off-camera, the story of what goes down during the last day and night of Monty's freedom flounders too much. The other characters here -- Monty's girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and his longtime pals Frank and Jakob (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman) -- keep getting in the way of the story's mood. In Naturelle's case, that's because we don't know enough about her or about her relationship with Monty: There are more silences than words between them. In the guys' case, it's because we know too much about them. The film spends too much time focused on how Frank and Jakob's friendship is tested by what's about to happen to Monty. What Lee's movie needs is more of its star and less of his bickering buddies.

Yet it's hard to detract from the film: Its intentions are good, the story at its center is interesting, and it's put together stylishly. To convey certain atmospheres, Lee goes for oddball film stocks and filters (and, in one case, a hell of a lot of blue light). In the last reel, Lee inserts what has become his trademark dolly shot, this time one of Hoffman in an unnerving close-up, walking toward a camera that must somehow be attached to him. The whole scene is even stranger because it's one of the few times in the film that Hoffman's Jakob is smiling.

But while all of these approaches make the film work well, Lee's choice of hammering points home through loud, overwrought music is almost as annoying as Anna Paquin's purposely annoying portrayal of a high schooler who might (or might not) have a crush on her teacher. Whatever she was trying to prove here, it's too bad Lee didn't turn down her voice's shriek control a couple of notches.

The same theme gets a little more exploration in the best of the film's many flashbacks, one that shows Monty's first meeting Naturelle when she was 17 and immediately falling for her. Rosario Dawson doesn't look like 17 for a second. That should matter, but somehow the scene is so sweet and innocent that it works despite the flaw.

Of the other side stories that impede the film's pace, the one concerning Monty and his father is both real and touching -- mark that up to the talents of Brian Cox as his dad. The subplot about Monty's contacts with the Russian Mafia and burly Kostya (Tony Siragusa), however, starts strong but fades badly.

All of these ups and downs leave the film with a choppy structure. For variety's sake, to be sure, such a downer of a story needs its morose atmosphere occasionally broken up. At the same time, the movie's unevenness prevents enough of its somber tone from coming across.

Near the end, in a smooth series of artfully done scenes, Lee deftly manages to achieve a meditative air about second chances in life. But because of the material he's working with and its message, the harsh slap of reality is never very far away.

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