For the next three months, I am going to highlight three films that were big surprises to me – calling this The Summer of Surprise. Something about each film I’ll write about in June, July, and August surprised me in some way. We’ll start with one that should not have been a surprise other than the fact it received little to no critical acclaim upon its release, though it did land on many decade film lists eventually. I am referring to 25th Hour (2002, dir. Spike Lee).
25th Hour tells the story of Montgomery “Monty” Brogan (peak Edward Norton), who is a New York drug dealer that has been sentenced to seven years in federal prison, starting in 24 hours. He has one last night before that stretch begins to see his father (Brian Cox), his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), and his two lifelong friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both excellent). It also would be nice if he could find out who tipped off the DEA and landed him in jail. We see the story through a mix of flashbacks and the methodical ticking away of time before prison.
Spike Lee, for me, has been a hit or miss director over the years. He came out of the box so strong with Do the Right Thing that the following few projects could only be disappointing. It took him a while to get back into great storytelling. 25th Hour is GREAT storytelling. The characters are incredibly layered and each brings something different and essential to the film. The surprising element for me is both in the film’s conclusion and in the fact that so much star power was behind this movie and it never seemed even close to major awards consideration. When I first saw the film, I was at a stage in my life where I only expected a film to be good if it was an awards contender. I have grown since then.
The film has a dual purpose as it also serves as Spike Lee’s love letter to New York City following September 11. There is a particular monologue where Monty rails against all the various New York City archetypes - a rundown of ethnic stereotypes that exist all over the city. On the surface, Monty is complaining about each group doing its part to make New York City awful, but it is really a thinly veiled diatribe about those same groups making New York City great.
Ultimately, what you have in 25th Hour is a story that grabs you and holds on for the entire time. How you feel about the various characters may change from scene to scene – like what happens in a great television series across the seasons but a very rare thing for a stand-alone film. You get two great endings, both of which are fully satisfying in my mind. It is well worth the trip.
FUN FACT – Tobey Maguire purchased the film rights to the novel of the same name by David Benioff (who would later co-create Game of Thrones). He intended to star in it but was too busy with the Spiderman films and ended up producing it instead. I imagine Maguire instead of Norton occasionally and an involuntary nausea usually accompanies that thought.
Just Watch says that 25th Hour is streaming on Hoopla and available for rent/purchase on several services, including Apple TV, DirecTV, and YouTube.