Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 9, 2003
Monty Goes Away

Spike Lee’s potent 25th Hour charts a drug dealer’s last day of freedom.


5th Hour is an uncommonly austere film from Spike Lee, probably his least flashy film since 1992’s Malcolm X. Some people don’t like Spike’s willful lack of discipline and his tendency to rant or go off on tangents, which typically results in all his films running a bit too long. I think these qualities indicate his relentless curiosity and are thus part of what makes him such a great filmmaker. This film is based on a novel by David Benioff, and Lee goes about adapting the book with the same sharp focus that the author showed in writing it.

It’s about Montgomery “Monty” Brogan (Edward Norton), a smart, handsome, charismatic New York City fireman’s son who could have succeeded at anything he wanted to. He became a drug dealer, and now the feds have caught him. The film takes place during his last 24 hours of freedom before he begins serving a seven-year prison sentence. He spends his time with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and his two friends from childhood, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a stodgy, ineffective high school English teacher, and Frank (Barry Pepper), a living-on-the-edge Wall Street broker whose apartment overlooks Ground Zero.

Some movies are impressive for the way they change moods, but this film is 132 minutes’ worth of a single sustained mood, as the deadline looms inexorably larger. There’s one big conflagration to light up the gloom, and that’s Monty’s spectacular extended monologue, full of scalding invective on everyone in New York City — gays, blacks, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Osama bin Laden, the NYPD, the Catholic Church, and, most of all, himself. The movie could easily be too grim even with this scene, but Lee avoids this by concentrating on the inner lives of his characters and letting his high-powered ensemble do its work.

Norton, Hoffman, and Pepper are formidable actors individually, but their biggest achievement here is how they give a sense of the group: the bickering, the teasing, the shared memories. Dawson’s best scenes are with them, as she looks every inch the part of the interloping girl who does her best to banter with the guys and occasionally succeeds. Isiah Whitlock Jr. shows some genial malevolence as a DEA agent who loves the sound of his own voice. (When he busts Monty, he says, “Sheee-it,” and you can feel him savoring the way the word feels in his mouth.) There’s also an effective performance from an unlikely source — former NFL defensive tackle Tony Siragusa as Monty’s Ukrainian bodyguard. Most filmmakers would have used the voluble 350-pound Siragusa strictly for comic relief, but Lee casts him as a real character who affects the story. The football star’s work would be a credit to any trained professional actor.

Most moving is Brian Cox as Monty’s dad, who ends the film with a monologue in which he hopelessly envisions Monty escaping from the authorities, settling down in some back-road Southwestern town, and finding happiness. This slow-rolling sequence takes on a devastating power, between Cox’s delivery, Lee’s rhythmic editing, and Terence Blanchard’s elegiac music. It’s the appropriate capper to this disquieting lament for a man who wasted a perfectly good life.

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