The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 1 (25th Hour and He Got Game) Review
25th Hour is a bold, mournful masterpiece that approaches the pinnacle of excellence for its director Spike Lee and star Edward Norton. It's still the best NYC-based film of the 21st century, and it also strikes me as the one which most acutely captures the emotional aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. There's a deep sense of loss built into Lee's picture, aided in great part by the career-best score of Terence Blanchard. Its opening title sequence uses the Tribute in Light, two vertical beams representing the Twin Towers, as an immediate mood-enhancer and the feeling persists despite only occasional, somewhat extraneous references elsewhere in the film. The effect was a brilliant touch by Lee, made better by never feeling cheap or manipulative. Few directors earned the right to make such a move but he was undeniably one of them. The layering of 9/11 into 25th Hour is done with such care and relative restraint that it now, almost twelve years afterward, still stirs the emotions without being weighed down by them. What remains is perhaps Lee's finest marriage of his own authentic creative impulses and stylistic flourishes with a less abrasive, more conventional narrative.
David Benioff adapted his own novel, about drug dealer Monty Brogan's last day before heading off upstate to do a seven-year stint in prison, for the screen. A goateed Norton excels as Brogan, and in retrospect this unfortunately now seems like the last peg of his great, career-opening run. A nice ensemble surrounds Norton, with Brian Cox as his father, Rosario Dawson playing his girlfriend Naturelle, and Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman as old friends Monty gets together with the night before he's to start his prison sentence. Anna Paquin tags along as one of Hoffman's students who also appears at the night club the group visits. The pull of the story is that Monty is about to go away for seven years, he may or may not have been turned in by Naturelle, and his two best friends, while still loyal, have somewhat faded into the background as he became a big-time drug dealer for a Russian mobster. Now he's been betrayed and is out of options. Monty has to make peace with his fate as he struggles with regrets. One of the film's best, most memorable scenes has Norton spewing an intense monologue targeting one ethnic group after another. He's staring at himself in the mirror during the rant and eventually realizes he only has himself to blame and must take responsibility for his own actions.
Elements of the set-up here are classic, almost noir-like plot devices. What makes 25th Hour so special is its execution, and the virtuosic direction by Lee. From the opening prologue, showing how Monty came to have his dog Doyle, to the various chronological jumps which serve to fill in a few gaps along the way, the film is a perfectly tuned piece of storytelling. If there's a slight blip it could be the extended amount of time spent at the night club. Each time I see the movie I'm less bothered by this section but it does seem to zap a little of the momentum. The cinematography, by Rodrigo Prieto, remains striking, only the limitations of the club setting keep things somewhat in check.
Several prominent decade-best lists included 25th Hour a few years ago, and for good reason. For me personally, it's up there with The Royal Tenenbaums and In the Mood for Love as the best of the 2000s. Often mentioned is the closing monologue Brian Cox delivers as he's driving Norton upstate to the prison. He almost begs his son to say the word so they can turn west, head for the desert, and he can start a new life with his freedom intact. It's a devastating, beautiful scene - well written and delivered with perfection by Cox. It brings me to tears and I doubt I'm alone. The exact reasons, as is frequently the case with such things, are difficult to pinpoint. One thing that clearly emerges in the scene is a kind of destruction of the Hollywood myth. It's a tad ambiguous, sure, but careful watching indicates it's all fantasy. There's no happy ending. Monty is going to prison and this life his father has dreamed up on the fly for him won't happen. The loss of innocence and happiness and opportunity is perhaps what gets me the most. The tears that flow come from sadness. It's also tied in a little to 9/11, and I don't know if that's at all fair or intentional on the film's part, but the connection made becomes too strong to ignore. On so many levels 25th Hour hits the right buttons and this ending is, as much as anything else in the film, a perfect and pure example of this.
I'd probably never thought of the parallels between 25th Hour and He Got Game prior to seeing them again, together for this release. Aside from Rosario Dawson as the protagonist's possibly duplicitous girlfriend in both, there's also a major emphasis on having the NYC-based lead being unable to trust several people in his life. Plus there are father and son elements, of differing kinds, in the two films. The ends, too, have a similar finality to them, of the previous two-plus hours leading up to something which will greatly change the lives of these men. The lingering prospect of prison also emerges in both pictures. While 25th Hour is the better, more disciplined and meaningful film, He Got Game has aged well and stands proudly sixteen years after its release.
As a quick outline of the plot, Lee's basketball film is about a Coney Island high schooler who's the top basketball recruit in the nation. Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by real-life hoops star Ray Allen) doesn't know where he'll attend college but he's being pursued by all of the major universities, real and fake. His father Jake (Denzel Washington) is incarcerated for, as we learn later on, killing his mother. In an ingenius but probably unlikely development, Jake is released from Attica to try and get his son to sign with the state governor's preferred Big State University. If Jake gets Jesus to ink a letter of intent the fifteen years left on his sentence will, he's promised by warden Ned Beatty, be greatly reduced. Two parole officers, including one played by NFL great and dirty dozen member Jim Brown, are to keep an eye on Jake while he's out. Hooker Milla Jovovich occupies the dingy motel room next door.
The subplot involving Jovovich is likely there just to give Washington more to do while letting us better get to know him but it's easily the most expendable element in a film running 135 minutes. Otherwise, He Got Game is both a modern classic and one of the top two or three movies ever made about basketball. It's also, like 25th Hour and the pair of films found in the second volume, evidence of just how vital Spike Lee has been as a filmmaker for the past nearly thirty years. Lee has rarely gotten his due but very few filmmakers of his generation have consistently delivered such original and interesting work time and again. Perhaps because his less successful pictures hit with a thud a little louder than most, Lee seems to engender barely any enthusiasm from either audiences or, unforgivably, critics. A director who also writes many of his own films and is clearly an auteur with a distinctive, powerful and consistent voice would seem to be a perfect candidate as a critics' darling but it's largely never coalesced for him.
He Got Game, like many of Lee's films, has its messy areas and its brilliant ones. Just how much of the former can be forgiven likely affects the overall view of the picture. The scene with Jesus inside his aunt and uncle's apartment doesn't really work, mostly because Allen is an inexperienced actor who needs to play off a skilled one like Washington and Bill Nunn is doing something more at home in a sitcom. The occasional flashbacks may also come across as awkward. When we do finally see the reason Jake is in prison, it comes at an unexpected time and the impact is difficult to pinpoint. Still, this is not necessarily a weakness in the film and really just feels like a directorial choice. It's certainly less traditional than putting the scene at the beginning.
Washington here has one of his more interesting roles as he's playing neither an obvious hero nor an obvious villain. There's a good bit of ambiguity and greyness with Jake. It's perhaps an underwritten character, too, which further complicates things. Writing aside, Washington is superb, and it's a thrill watching him straddle ambiguity in ways he's only rarely done. In a sense, this and Malcolm X might be Washington's two most complex screen characters. The two roles he won Oscars for are comparatively less challenging and obvious, though these things tend to even themselves out in the wash, so to speak. The one-on-one scenes with Allen are particular high points.
The Aaron Copland score Lee uses, particularly in the opening montage, is both inspired and radically in conflict with Public Enemy's songs like the Buffalo Springfield-sampled title track. It's a daring move which ultimately does pay off by injecting a classical feel to the picture. Lee, at his best, brings a kind of operatic or theatrical element to his films, and the orchestral music tends to only heighten that feeling.
The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Volume 1 brings 25th Hour and He Got Game to Blu-ray with separate discs inside a normal-sized BD case. It's a region-free, quite affordable release from Disney/Buena Vista.
The two films both look quite good and without damage. They appear on dual-layered discs. 25th Hour retains some of the grit owing to its origins but improves greatly on the existing DVD release. Meanwhile, He Got Game never even got an anamorphic widescreen edition in R1 DVD so this is a major advancement. Arms should be wide open here as these two films make their HD debuts in excellent fashion. 25th Hour is presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio while He Got Game is at 1.85:1. The transfers absolutely should not be a barrier to upgrading.
Audio is a major aspect of Lee's films and these two sound terrific. Both have English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks which cleanly charge across the surround channels. They emphasize the great scores while making dialogue easily understood at a consistent, satisfying volume. Music emerges cleanly and at a strong clip. Spanish dubs are available for both films, though 25th Hour gets a 2.0 Dolby Digital mix while He Got Game has a 5.1 DD option. Subtitles in English for the hearing impaired, Spanish and French are included for both. The commentaries, as usual with Disney releases, are also subtitled in English.
25th Hour retains the special features from the earlier DVD release. These include a pair of commentaries - one by Spike Lee and a second by writer David Benioff. Deleted Scenes, a Lee-centric featurette entitled "The Evolution of an American Filmmaker" and the "Ground Zero" tribute piece also have been ported over from the previous edition.
New here is a commentary track pairing director Spike Lee and actor Edward Norton. The two were recorded together and reflect fondly on the film in an infectious way. This probably took place in the winter of '13/'14 as it was clearly prior to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who comes up when Lee asks Norton how he's doing. It's a sad, uncomfortable moment in the commentary but it isn't something which could have been helped and including it seems like the right choice. The actor and director play off of each other well enough and this would probably be the most instructional of the three included tracks here.
A new commentary for He Got Game is also here. It has Lee alongside Ray Allen. We can put the recording date as January 9, 2014 due to some of the game-related discussion. The two seem to have a fun time with each other, even if some of the track is pretty repetitive and missing the critical drive needed to better highlight the strengths of this film outside of its basketball inner-circle contingent.