25th Hour

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Spike Lee
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 24
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Think of Spike Lee and you'll probably think of a film he made in his fertile period of 1988-1992: "Do The Right Thing," "Jungle Fever," "Mo' Better Blues" or "Malcolm X." Odds are you won't be quick to recall many of his spotty works in the decade since, misfires like "Girl 6," "Crooklyn," "Get on the Bus" or "He Got Game," with the one exception being "Summer of Sam." That one was an anomaly for Lee, since he worked with an outside script and an exclusively white-boy cast, but nevertheless delivered a sharply observed portrait of NYC in the late '70s and the small-minded prejudice of boyz in the boroughs.

Ironically enough, "25th Hour" -- Lee's latest, and probably his best work in a decade, but for "Summer" -- also features a bunch of white boys in the leads, and a screenplay by author David Benioff, which Lee largely refrained from tampering with. Draw your own conclusions if you must, but my impression is that Lee all too often lets didacticism get in the way of storytelling in his own scripts, and working with a white cast allows him to dodge the racial issues, which all so often balloon into the aforementioned didacticism. (Think "Bamboozled," or "Get on the Bus.")

Lee's always had a good eye for actors, and he's at his best when he's interested in characters, not the socio-political point they're supposed to represent. That's certainly true of "25th Hour," which features an impressive ensemble cast -- Edward Norton ("Fight Club"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Happiness," "Boogie Nights") and Barry Pepper ("Saving Private Ryan") -- and a story that largely remains focused on the dynamics between them.