LOS ANGELES, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- What would you do if your son had one day left before his 7-year prison term began? Or what if he were your oldest buddy? Your boyfriend? Your subordinate who could rat you out to the Feds? What if he were you?
In Spike Lee's "25th Hour," Edward Norton portrays a 31-year-old New Yorker on whom the prison doors are about to slam shut. After weak performances in "Death to Smoochy" and "Red Dragon," the two-time Oscar nominee is back on form.
Norton plays a thoughtful, rather likeable yuppie who has messed up badly, leaving himself with three choices: go on the lam forever, kill himself, or endure an over-crowded maximum-security prison where his boyish WASP looks will likely attract unwanted attention.
There are three basic types of male lead roles. The first is the masculine icon: the enviably but impossibly strong (Arnold Schwarzenegger) or attractive (Tom Cruise) movie star whom every fellow in the audience would like to be.
Norton isn't cut out for that. He pumped himself up to play a massive skinhead in "American History X," but his natural body is wiry and his face resembles an overgrown chipmunk's.
The second kind is the character lead, the interesting personality that the audience enjoys watching, but wouldn't want to be. Norton claims his model is Dustin Hoffman's loveable loser Ratso Rizzo in "Midnight Cowboy."
In "25th Hour," though, Norton delivers a fine version of the third archetype, the easy-to-identify-with regular guy (what Tom Hanks plays). In classic cowboy movies, this would be Jimmy Stewart's part, not John Wayne's masculine icon or Walter Brennan's character roles.
Most men can relate a little to Norton's situation. We've all given some thought to just how we'd manage if -- God forbid -- the time ever came to hop into the proverbial white Bronco and make a break for the border. I hated "Thelma and Louise" when I first saw it because the women botched their escape to Mexico so badly (they started in Arkansas and fell into the Grand Canyon). Obviously, they didn't have a plan worked out years before, like any red-blooded American man would.
Before our felon makes his final decision, though, there are people he wants to see:
-- His heartbroken retired fireman father (Brian Cox, the screenwriting guru in "Adaptation"), an on-the-wagon alcoholic who blames himself for letting his beloved son go wrong;
-- His best friend, a brash Wall Street broker (Barry Pepper, Roger Maris in HBO's "61*"), who thinks Norton deserves what he's getting.
Paquin is lively and Hoffman (best known as rock critic Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous") once again disappears into his role. (In good news, Hoffman is rumored to be the first choice to play Ignatius J. Reilly, the quixotic anti-hero of the famous comic novel "A Confederacy of Dunces," which may finally be emerging from 23 years in development hell.)
Then, there is Norton's pampered girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), whom he's not sure he wants to see, since she may have sent him up the river.
Finally, there are the people desperate to see him: a strung-out ex-customer and the scary Brighton Beach gangsters who supplied him heroin. (In his movie debut, 340-pound NFL noseguard Tony Siragusa makes a surprisingly credible Ukrainian enforcer.)
And that's the problem with the "25th Hour." Just as Hanks' role as a good-hearted hitman in "Road to Perdition" was misconceived, here the protagonist's crime is too vicious, too sustained, and too vivid to harmonize with Norton's portrayal of an everyman who made a mistake.
The heroin business is not a one-time screw-up. It's a career. Heroin dealers kill their customers by facilitating overdoses and AIDS. And, if the junkies don't pay what they owe, the dealers kill them with guns to encourage the others to pay up. Novelist and screenwriter David Benioff should have assigned Norton's character the Wall Street job, where he could have embezzled millions from abstract victims, while telling himself he was still an OK guy.
This oversight is unfortunate because Benioff's dialogue provides the expert cast with some ferocious scenes. And no one is better at staging harsh arguments between New Yorkers than director Spike Lee.
His visual choices are more questionable, however. Lee imposes a stuttering rhythm on the editing, with lots of gratuitous cuts, some jumping forward a second in time, some backward to replay a moment from a different angle. This might have added interest to a weaker screenplay, but the situation and dialogue here is so strong it seems a distraction.
Rated R for strong language and some violence.