Damn near lost in the rush of holiday releases, 25th Hour is a riveting, emotionally resonant New York drama about mostly Irish white guys. Strange turf for Spike Lee, who still manages to do the right thing by trusting the wildly ambitious script that David Benioff has adapted from his own novel. Lee is firing on all cylinders, and the actors match his energy. Edward Norton is dynamite as Brooklyn drug dealer Monty Brogan, a felon filling his last hours before going to prison for seven years. He hangs with his friends: Francis (Barry Pepper hits all the right notes), a Wall Street trader, and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a teacher who lusts after a teen student (Anna Paquin). Monty consoles his bar-owner dad, James (the great Brian Cox), and tortures himself with the idea that his girl, Naturelle (gorgeous Rosario Dawson), may have turned him in.
Lee sets these relationships against a city battered by the events of September 11th. Francis' apartment looks out on Ground Zero, and the gifted cinematographer Rodriego Prieto (8 Mile, Amores Perros) catches an atmosphere that crackles with tension. In a restroom mirror, Monty launches into a love-hate attack on every race and institution in the five boroughs. Later, in a scene of touching compassion, James imagines a future for Monty outside of prison. The film crams in more ideas than it can comfortably hold. But in a multiplex filled with empty New Year vessels (take that, Kangaroo Jack), this holdover grabs you hard.