Slick Manhattan drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) has 24 hours of freedom before starting a seven-year stretch in the slammer.
The Russian mob fear he's going to give them up, he wonders if his girlfriend gave him up, and his friends have given up. Philip Seymour Hoffman's naive teacher is preoccupied with an alluring student, and Barry Pepper's Wall Street suit figures Monty's getting what he deserves.
It's their final night together, and they plan to get steaming drunk...
Spike Lee's latest joint is about choice. Not just in Monty's dilemma over whether to stay or scarper, but his earlier decision to make easy, illegal money - and the tacit complicity of his loved ones, from lover Rosario Dawson to dad Brian Cox.
It is also about the choice facing America, post-September 11th. From the opening credits - a New York nightscape with spotlights standing in for the Twin Towers - "25th Hour" sets its stall as a picture with subtext. Brogan is the United States. (Hammering the point home, his apartment is decorated with a poster for the famously allegorical "Cool Hand Luke".)
This may all sound terribly worthy, but far from it. The message underlies but never overpowers a moving, witty character piece. The time-limited, pressure cooker environment brings to mind Lee's "He Got Game" and "Do the Right Thing", and the director showcases his admirable ability to capture moments of emotional substance through striking visual style (Hoffman's post-kiss scene is a classic).
David Benioff's honest, intelligent script - from his own novel - nails the resentment and love which characterise lifelong friendships, and captures the volatile, vital nature of seemingly inconsequential banter (recalling another movie about choice, friendship and redemption: Hal Ashby's 1973 classic "The Last Detail"). It feels true.
The slightly overblown finale can't quite fulfill the preceding promise, but this is still Lee's best picture in years. Powerful and uplifting, "25th Hour" is well worth two of yours.