WHAT HAPPENED TO Spike Lee? Where is the wit and humor of She's Gotta Have It? Where is the heat and fire of Do the Right Thing? None of those qualities are apparent in 25th Hour (which opens Friday, Jan. 10 at Pacific Place and other theaters), a terrible film about three terribly boring white guys who find it terribly hard to express their feelings. Oh, great—at least in pictures like Jungle Fever or Summer of Sam, Lee's New Yorkers can be relied upon to shout their feelings with such intensity that spittle coats the lens. Everyone gets their licks in: Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Koreans, Bensonhurst Italians . . . the whole angry polyglot city. It says everything about the failure of this leaden drama that the most interesting characters are Russian and Ukrainian mobsters who butcher the English language with fierce immigrant avidity.
If there were any hope for this movie, it disappears after a prologue in which heroin dealer Monty (Edward Norton) argues with his Ukrainian muscleman Kostya (Tony Siragusa) about whether to shoot or save an injured dog lying beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The scene is a crossroads: Follow huge, garrulous, colorful Kostya, and you've got a movie with potential for action and dramatic conflict; go with Monty, and you've got an Upper East Side sulk-a-thon where nothing happens and nobody cares.
But don't let me slight Rosario Dawson; she's the only other good thing about Hour. Playing Monty's Puerto Rican girlfriend, Naturelle, she doesn't seem to have been stultified by the same Method-era gas Lee pumped onto his set. (Perhaps because they smoke so much, the Slavic mobsters also appear immune to its effects.) Sexy and alive in an otherwise inert picture, Dawson doesn't drown in her character like her glumly introverted co-stars.
Monty's going to jail tomorrow (boo hoo), and he suspects Naturelle might have fingered him to the DEA. Why? Good question. She shares his posh Yorkville pad rent-free and quite obviously adores the guy, so she has no apparent incentive. The script makes her a suspect only because clich餠scripts about drug dealers going to jail require that their girlfriends be suspects.
Meanwhile, Monty also has to make peace with his Irish barkeep father (Brian Cox) and his two best friends from prep school—one a cocky Wall Street trader (Barry Pepper), the other a nebbishy teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman). All of them are types, and this is the most damning indictment of Lee as a director (even if he didn't have a hand in the script, which was adapted by David Benioff from his own novel): 16 years after his feature debut, and he still can't create plausible characters. Lee's idea of character has traditionally sprung from a few key lines of dialogue typed on a 3-by-5 note card tacked up on a bulletin board in a random order. His movies lurch from confrontation scene to confrontation scene and outburst to outburst. "You're my best friend," one of Monty's pals tells him, but Lee never shows us that connection.
In the past, his types have always shouted their dialogue; here, they mumble. If Lee thinks that's progress, maybe he's the one who should be locked up.