Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, movie directors started making the World Trade Center disappear, either by digitally erasing it from shots or by omitting the shots altogether. But how to establish that a movie is set in New York City? Lately, we've been getting shots of the Empire State Building, which has resumed its role as Manhattan's iconic skyscraper. And this makes it all the more surprising when Spike Lee opens his latest movie, 25th Hour, with a series of shots, from various angles, of "Tribute in Light," the temporary memorial that beamed a ghostly simulacrum of the Twin Towers into the night sky over Lower Manhattan. At once there and not there, "Tribute in Light" has to be one of the most uplifting works of art in the history of civilization, a Jacob's ladder upon which thousands of souls might ascend toward the afterlife.
You can't blame Lee, who's intimately associated with New York City, for wanting to acknowledge the damage that's been done there. But his urge to memorialize results in a curious hybrid, given that 25th Hour is otherwise a rather straightforward crime drama. Based on a novel by David Benioff, who also wrote the screenplay, it stars Edward Norton as a drug dealer who has only a few hours left before he's supposed to show up at a state penitentiary to begin serving a seven-year sentence. Although he sold heroin for a living, Norton's Monty Brogan is supposed to be a good guy, and the movie has us pulling for him early on, after he rescues a dog that's been kicked to within an inch of its life, then left for dead. Later, Monty hands some spare change to a homeless person. As I said, a good guy, but he did a bad thing, and he must pay.
Perhaps because Lee was in mourning when he made the movie, Monty's last night as a free man is a royal bummer, both for him and for us. Like Jesus on the road to Calvary, Monty has all these Stations of the Cross to take care of ' existential errands, if you will. He has to say goodbye to his father (Brian Cox). He has to say goodbye to his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) and try to figure out whether she ratted him out to the feds. He has to say goodbye to his Ukrainian-mafia boss, who may prefer what used to be called "the long goodbye." And he has to party down with his friends since childhood, Francis (Barry Pepper) and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), although there seems to be an unspoken agreement among them that none will have the slightest bit of fun.
Given what your average Hollywood director would have done with this material, we should probably be grateful that Lee just says no to having fun. And there's a kind of somber luxuriousness in Terence Blanchard's musical score and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography. (Prieto brought us the dog-eat-dog world of Amores Perros.) But the script doesn't live up to the rest of the movie, doesn't plumb the depths that Lee seems to think it's plumbing. For instance, we're given no real sense of how Monty wound up selling smack on a school playground. How did this good guy turn into a bad guy? And how, pray tell, does that relate to the aftermath of Sept. 11? 25th Hour is uncharacteristically subdued for a Spike Lee movie. (Scenes go on for hours.) He's at his best when he's all fired up about something, from Do the Right Thing to Bamboozled. Here, he seems defeated, imprisoned in his own grief.