RIORI Vol 3, Installment 40: Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” (2002)

Red Dragon

The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and Harvey Keitel, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald and Mary-Louise Parker.

The Story…

To know the mind of a killer, one must understand a killer.

FBI agent Will Graham knows this all too well. His final capture which sent him into retirement was the infamous serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. “The Cannibal” almost sent Will to his grave. Instead, Lecter merely left Will with a scarred body and an even more scarred psyche.

Now there is a new killer on the loose, and Graham gets dragged back into active duty. This “Tooth Fairy” seems to have the same tastes, so to speak, as our dear doctor. So Will seeks out his old adversary for some insight into the motives of his quarry. You know, to help with the manhunt.

Seems like Graham doesn’t understand as much as he should.

The Rant…

I don’t think there have been a lot of Best Picture Oscars in the past 30 years that have truly earned the award. I mean the Oscars are nothing but a high school senior year popularity contest, right? Minus the beer bust on Friday at Kevin’s place since his ‘rents are in Barbados. Best Pics in my observation are nominated on popularity (eg: box office booty), critics’ nose-out-of-joint say-so (I’m not in the Academy, so my say-so is worth f*ck-all. By proxy, I’m more qualified, so nyah) and the dotty senility of a clutch of old, white, rich guys who don’t even have to watch the nominees (refer to my Crash installment. I’m too damned lazy to repeat myself).

Bitter? Me? Naaah.

What I’m saying is there are some movies that are so monumental of course they’d win awards, no matter how irrelevant and empty such trinkets are. I am of the George C Scott school regarding awards and self-congraduations: just stay home from the bells and whistles (never get invited anyway. Sulk). Great sh*t doesn’t need to advertise they’re great. They speak for themselves.

By my measure—and my standards, which are hopelessly myopic, thank you—precious few grand films have come down the pike lately. By lately I mean in my lifetime, all forty angry, drunken, flatulent years. Across this continuum, we’ve had “what the hell” winners like Dances With Wolves, The English Patient, Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and the original Rocky. Yes, that Rocky.

I await your beer cans. I am not afraid. I’m wearing Gallagher concert gear.

Those films are a small sample of good movies, but really haven’t endured. It’s no mystery that I find Wolves treacly and somewhat insulting, but it’s still decent. Worthy of all that praise? Let’s put it this way, quote from it. Anything but “Tatanka.

*whistling wind*

Okay, weak sauce. But what I’m driving at is a lot of those Best Pics haven’t really saturated the pop culture consciousness, as if they’ve always been there. Or the pop scene couldn’t’ve existed without these films, so entrenched they are in our short attention span, microwave mac n’ cheese, Nickelback downloading hive mind. The comprehensive list is short, but potent. Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Godfather 1 & 2, Lawrence Of Arabia, the original (can’t believe I have to quantify that) Ben-Hur are prime examples. Precious few other capital Q quality movies have dropped in our laps that had no other option but to win Best Picture. Few and far between, but since the bicentennial we have had The Deer Hunter, Gandhi, Amadeus, Unforgiven to impress eternal upon our collective, popcorn-drunk brainpans.

Oh, and The Silence Of The Lambs. Can’t forget that one.

*our blogger finally approaches his point, and the crowd lets out a sigh of relief*

Stick around. I’m baking cookies.

Ah, Lambs. A perfect example of an enduring movie. Quarter century old and it still resonates with the movie munching public. Even folks who’ve never even seen the thing (for shame) can quote it verbatim, Agent Starling. I’m not gonna wax rhapsodic about the film, except the for that fact is that it’s the wifey’s fave film, which says something. Maybe that she’s a Virgo. But I am gonna go on about Anthony Hopkins’ performance as the infamous cannibal. It’s pertinent to the rest of this screed, never worry. So regardless what your personality makeup is, Lambs packs a punch. Along that line, no one out there in the audience has more (of a twisted) personality that Dr Hannibal Lecter, Hollywood’s favorite serial killer.

The most fascinating thing I ever heard about how the character is regarded is that Lecter was the guy you wished you knew. The man with the grace, intelligence and poise who would be the ideal person to spend an evening with over wine and cheese. This is naturally thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance, and although I cast a cocked brow at the Academy, they didn’t have rocks in their heads back in ’91. Hopkins’ charm sold the character, and Lecter is a very scary customer. Hollywood lore says that Hopkins only had like 20 minutes of screen time, but boy did he make the most of it.

So how did those scant 20 work so coldly effective? I think I have an idea. This theory’s based on an actual interview with Hopkins, and how he approached the character of Lecter. When he initially read the the script for Lambs he was uncomfortable with the character. Appalled might’ve been a better word. The party line went that Lambs’ babbling director Jonathan Demme was a fan of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the biopic about the Victorian prodigy with elephantiasis John Merrick. In that film, Hopkins portrayed his sympathetic benefactor Dr Treaves. Demme suggested to Hopkins that Lecter is Treaves, in reverse. Play him that way.

It worked. Lecter was well-mannered, considerate, insightful…devious, manipulative and twisted. Come into my parlor, said the spider to Clarice. That combo of sweet with the bitter made for a delicious, scary villian. And he was behind bars! The real terror was Buffalo Bill skinning girls (and a moment of aforementioned rocks in the head back then Ted Levine wasn’t nominated for his freakish performance. No justice, I tell you), not that you cared with Lecter scheming behind the plexiglass barrier. The anti-Treaves method worked wonders.

Which is why we still talk about the movie—and the character—to this day. Now, with such a compelling character as Lecter we hated to see him go. Although Lambs didn’t (immediately) invite a sequel, although the ending left that open (and it eventually showed up in the form of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, not to mention the TV series to a degree) doubtless Hollywood was champing at the bit to keep Lecter in the minds of moviegoers. Well, word on the street was that Hannibal failed to deliver, both the novel and the film (perhaps that trifle will be cast asunder at RIORI in the near future. Cross your fingers), and the nascent franchise seemed dead in the water.

Then Hollywood decided to employ a device I loathe: the prequel. It didn’t work with Star Wars, and if that ain’t a red flag I don’t know what is. Maybe that Rob Zombie Halloween remake. Some folks never learn. I believe that prequels are not just milking cash cow, but strangling the udders until they bleed. Can’t expand the story further? Retrofit! Fix what’s not broken! Muddy the waters! Freebird!

Deceive. I hate deception. Especially flagrant deception, in plain sight and a big middle finger to the moviegoing public. When a good movie comes out, and there is actual room for a sequel (eg: the original Star Wars or Godfather movies), it works once in a while. But for every The Road Warrior we get Ghostbusters 2.

That being said, and simply put, extending a movie’s story is a tricky, often faulty undertaking. Most of the time sequels are all about bigger, better, faster, more. Prequels try even harder. They are mercifully scant, but when they do pop up…well, law of diminishing returns. Think Attack Of The Clones, Prometheus and Monsters University. Superfluous, annoying and an obvious cash grab. If there really is another story to tell before the here and now, it helps if there is a legit story to draw from.

Might be a good thing that Lambs author Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon first…

FBI profiler Will Graham (Norton) has a problem, and it’s behind bars. It’s also in his mind. Furthermore, it’s not an “it,” but a he. His last case.

Dr Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Hopkins).

Graham has the skill—or perhaps curse—of malign empathy towards killers. He can get inside their heads, imagine how they operate, understand their motives. But all that sifting takes a psychic toll. It’s taken Graham to the brink more than once. Even the most skilled of manhunters need help in sorting disgusting matters out. Which is why he sought out Lecter.

Once. And it nearly killed him.

You see, Graham was being aided by Lecter in cracking a case of serial killer terrorizing the Baltimore area. Him being the preeminent forensic psychologist in the country, of course his insight would be invaluable. It was. All too much. Graham uncovered Lecter was the killer, flaying his victims and devouring their organs. Graham’s oversight nearly cost him his life at Lecter’s hands, but not before sending him to the loony bin.

After that, retirement, but not before stints in a medical and mental hospital. Psychic toll.

Graham was over with it. Forget the FBI. Retreat to Florida with his wife Molly (Parker) and young son Josh. Fix boats to pay the bills. In sum, recuperate, and let the nutjobs alone.

Then his old boss Jack Crawford (Keitel) shows up with a pair of photographs. Two families, slain in a gruesome fashion. Jack needs Graham’s old magic back; this case is hard to crack. At first, Graham balks. He was done after Lecter. Jack insists. This new freak, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” (Feinnes) is crafty, and Crawford needs Graham’s unique skill set. Will he lend a hand, if only as a consultant?

Graham has a family, too. But before he takes Jack up on his offer, he feels he needs some unique skills for his own use. This Tooth Fairy is cagey, and his pattern stinks of an old adversary. A very smart, clever and devious adversary. Someone who may be better than him at getting into crazies’ heads.

“Dr Lecter, there is someone here to so see you…”

I’d be remiss in my duties to point out, as far as prequels go, Red Dragon the novel was made into a film once before back in the 80s. A very good film, BTW. Michael Mann (of Miami Vice fame) directed  Manhunter back in 1986, five years before Demme’s Lambs. In Manhunter we were introduced to our best bud Lecter in the form of the brilliant Irish character actor Brian Cox. Cox’s Lecter was pissy, mocking and devoid of all charm that Hopkins had. He was great. After watching Red Dragon, I wondered that beyond Treaves, maybe Hopkins took some cues from Cox for a proper delivery before Clarice carefully descended into the basement and got jizz flung at her hair. Maybe.

Manhunter was a product of its time, and it showed. This is a good thing. It was a very 80s film, down to the fashions and synth-driven soundtrack. The cast was awesome, too. As Graham we had William L Peterson pre-CSI, the late, great character actor Dennis Farina as the dour Crawford, and looming large and creepy Tom Noonan as the Tooth Fairy (he later portrayed Frankenstein’s Monster if that tells you anything. Okay, it was in The Monster Squad, but come on).

Manhunter was an angular, engaging, hard to watch (in a good way) kinda film. I own it. I love it. Some folks claim that in some ways it’s superior to Lambs. Some say. Both are very different animals, though. It’s kinda of hard to believe that the character of Lecter (thanks to Hopkins) was nothing but charming and quietly menacing. Cox’s performance was a sarcastic, angry, trolling doosh, well met since he was pissed at Graham for capturing him.

This was not lost on Hopkins in Red Dragon. Must’ve seen Manhunter as research. Hopkins affects the same vitriol as Cox did. His Hannibal is f*cking pissed being behind bars, and spews his ire all over Norton’s Graham. He does it with the old Hopkins/Lecter charm, though, but here it’s soured. Where Hopkins was a smooth smoothie in Lambs, he’s crude and rude in Dragon, happily taunting his nemesis at every opportunity. Sure, Graham’s Tooth Fairy case piques Lecter’s intellect, but most it serves as the MacGuffin: revenge on his captor. Lecter taunts Graham, rather than goads Starling. Hannibal’s not scary here. Instead he’s funny, but not ha-ha. He mocks Will with his wit. He’s angry, and at every chance he snipes and snarks. And what better way to torment a scared person on the edge with a well-placed barb? Hell, I use that all the time. Sometimes even here.

Before we delve deeper into bedrock, let me me scatter some gravel. Remember what I said about Manhunter being a product of its time? Dragon has that, too. I’m not talking pop culture fingerprints, though. Director Ratner (whom I wish would’ve shown more verve after this film. X-Men 3? Blargh), with thanks to the scenarists cut a clean film that has tons of 80s touchstones without blaring them. Subtle old school touches are myriad in Dragon. The cars, the fashions, those blocky computers and VHS tapes aplenty. You almost forget that this film was cut in the early aughts. Of course it helps that at the outset, Lecter’s capture happened in 1980.

That’s another thing. Here’s where the prequel aspect actually comes into good use. In Lambs again, Hopkins’ Lecter was slender, almost gaunt. Spending years in captivity will do that to you (prison food sucks, and no liver or fava beans either). In Dragon, Lecter looks well-fed, so to speak, and still has dark hair. One would assume a cannibal deprived of his menu would slim down behind plastic. In Dragon, not long after his capture, one might assume that Lecter would be peeved being deprived of his “luxuries” and look a tad chubby. Of course, this in reality would be due to Hopkins hitting Old Country Buffet with his millions, but let’s not split hairs. Pass the gravy.

Norton as Graham on the other hand is a different case. In Manhunter, Petersen’s Graham was a cold, distant, haunted person. He maintained a flat affect throughout the film that made him haggard, scared and enervated, No surprise with the Lecter case he carried around in his head. The show was over, but not upstairs. Petersen’s Graham was disturbed. Norton’s Graham is cool. Where Petersen was on the edge of cracking up, Norton is collected (albeit barely). Norton has a rep for being difficult, and has a penchant for playing weird characters. Our baby-faced protag has donned the mask of neo-Nazi Derek from American History X, Dr Bruce “The Incredible Hulk” Banner and Fight Club‘s narrator. FBI profiler Will Graham ain’t too far a stretch, still he lacks the personality tics expected of a cop nearly killed by his arrest, only to have tea with him later. The saving grace here is whenever his Graham has to (reluctantly) interact with Lecter he looks visibly upset, if not scared, all set jaw and on the verge of cringing. His cool demeanor gets disrupted. It would’ve been better if the curled chin and glassy look were used more often over the course of the film.

Norton was no Petersen, but Dragon had a different flavor. Manhunter‘s Graham was emotional. Dragon‘s Graham was clinical. That’s it. Dragon is more a straightforward crime drama than Lambs was all drama and scary. Here we have fast-paced, where Lambs was careful and deliberate. Dragon wasn’t made to win Oscars. It was made to thrill.

Urgency is the watchword here. When Crawford shows up at Graham’s door he’s quick to inform him that they have a scant three weeks to find the Tooth Fairy before he kills again. The race is on, and it only lets up in fits and starts when we gotta give face time to our pair of serial killers. Everything in Dragon is bounce, bounce, bounce and the editing is fantastic. Usually a breakneck speed that Dragon sails at would derail most crime dramas. There is a lot of info dump here, but the delivery is so fluid you have little trouble following the narrative. In fact, Ratner’s skill at pacing is so good here that the hints and subtleties register moments later with an “Ah ha!” You figure out what’s happening in a flash and it gives you a sense of satisfaction. I’m on to you, Tooth Fairy! Chewy this, and I’m not apologizing for that one.

Something else worth pointing out. This is a DeLaurentiis production. For those out there that this fact fails to send a chilling chuckle down your spine, lemme tug on your coat a bit. That name has been synonymous with distributing low rent, chewing gum for the mind movies for half a century. Some of that studio’s output has been noteworthy for that. The good: Blue Velvet, Evil Dead 2 and (wait for it) Manhunter. The bad (and they are criminally bad): Maximum Overdrive, Earth Girls Are Easy and the Pumpkinhead franchise. All those disparate movies, however, have a signature thread running through the cinematic tapestry: cheesiness. For good and bad. Virtually every one of the DeLaurentiis films have a happy degree of movie gouda.

The rub? It works both ways. Dragon has some of that cheeze. There’s a campiness nipping at the heels in Dragon. As interesting as the acting is, its all one curd away from seagull-splaterring onto your shoes. Then again, it works here. There’s a sort B-movie aspect to Dragon, in a good way. Example? The supporting cast.

Example? Feinnes as the Tooth Fairy (AKA Francis Dolarhyde, one of the best character names this side of a Pynchon novel) is really enjoying his role here, which is really creepy. Sure, we all know serial killers are nuts and scary, but Feinnes really digs in here. His Dolarhyde is a slow burn, only to get bonkers all alone. Graham documented the handiwork while Dolarhyde was pumping iron and getting berated by his dead grammy. It’s the whole letting your imagination filling in the blanks. When Feinnes is on screen, we know he’s…off. The whole pie scene alone is quite chilling. His is almost a stereotype, but with the whole “Ah ha!” thing I mentioned earlier paired with the cheese Dolarhyde is not menacing as much as he is freaky. In the end, almost a thing of pity. And isn’t the best way to appreciate a character? Sympathy? Who’s with me?

There’s a few hiccups here, though. There always are. It’s understood by this point that Dragon plays on Manhunter‘s legacy with a lot of winks and nods. It’s almost as if the movie assumes you’ve seen the other version, inviting if not daring you to stab a finger at the screen. While Manhunter took a few liberties with the source novel, it was its own entity. It maintained the spirit of the story if not the letter. Dragon on the other hand follows Harris’ book almost note for note, scene for scene. If you read the book, it’ll be either very satisfying to see Ratner got it “right” or frustrating for the film being so literal in its execution. In fact, there are only two scenes I can recall in Dragon that weren’t pulled directly from the text: the first scene and last scene. How Graham nabbed Lecter and the ensuing psychological damage was touched upon in the novel, made flesh with the opening. The final scene is a sop/snicker for Lambs fans. The first works while the last is merely cute.

So much hero worship can send the movie experience into ultra-overdrive. For example, we learn that the Tooth Fairy’s motives lay in “seeing” things. And, boy, there sure are a lot of pictures and home videos in the victims’ houses. The clever subtlety is there, but as satisfying as it is to catch it, there’s not a lot of time to digest it all. Ratner’s roller coaster flow had a tendency to get a bit too fast paced. Like if you’re not familiar with Manhunter it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. I admit I had to do a bit of explaining here and there when I sat down and watched Dragon with the wife and stepdaughter (don’t worry. She’s sixteen. Not the wife). That’s not fun (not the wife).

Sometimes it felt like Ratner let the actors take over the movie. The lunatics took over the asylum, almost literally. As much fun as it was to watch our cast dig in, the narrative occasionally felt muddled for it, often overtaken by a bit too much symbolism (somewhat more soft selling to Manhunter) and scenery chewing. The “lady dressed by the sun” paired later with Reba and the fire scene was a tad heavy-handed. Then again, “Ah ha!” Again. It could get a shade busy and tiresome. It all came to a head with the super tense ending, which was very good, but it also had the taste that this scene was what the movie was ultimately leading to, not necessarily the journey. Virtually all our cast were in the direct spotlight, recapping their reasons for being. Considering Ratner’s style, though it was a good way to go regardless.

So no, Dragon is not Lambs. It doesn’t try to be. Dragon may be more demented than Lambs, but such a film should be. The latter was approaching art. The former was meant to entertain, and that it did. Quite well, in fact. With a guy like Lecter, you need both sides of the plate to really dig in after all. Delightful and goofy supporting cast both. Cheese with the chianti. In further fact, Lambs might’ve started the whole modern serial killer drama template as we know it. Style over style over substance in the finest way. Without Lambs, we’d have no Se7en, no American Psycho, no Henry.

And no Red Dragon, either. Full circle, that.

“Dream much, Will?”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a high octane thriller, more so paired against Lambs’ slow burn. Dragon‘s worth your while, so long as you pair the right wine with the proper cheeze. Visit your dentist while you’re at it.

Stray Observations…

  • I have that book. I also have no idea what human flesh tastes like. Probably like chicken.
  • “Where’s the dog?”
  • What’s with the mini-gallows?
  • “Would you give that up?”
  • The sniffing thing in both movies. Continuity?
  • “What was your trick?” “I let him kill me.”
  • Notice the sweat stains and tell me Graham’s not scared.
  • “I have no pity” I saw Schindler’s List. Gotcha.
  • Bless you, 666.
  • “You’re so sly, but so am I.” I mentioned this film caged a lot from Manhunter.
  • That billboard is a tad early.
  • “How ’bout an exclusive?” Hoffman is so slimy here he has algae stuck to his brow.
  • “I’ve been there myself.”

Next Installment…

“Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like Straw Dogs” – Su Zhe

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 17: Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” (2002)

25th Hour

The Players…

Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox.

The Story…

After years of making a mint in the drug trade, Monty Brogan’s luck has run out. The cops were tipped off to his crimes, and now Monty’s facing a stint for seven years up river. With only one day of freedom left, Monty wants to reconnect with his estranged friends for one last night on the town.

The Rant…

Sometimes I get the feeling that Spike Lee gets a bad rap, and for the life of me I can’t understand why.

I say “feeling,” being based on his years in the industry, Lee’s personality tends to override his artistic credentials. That and I think his terse, naked, in-yo-face directorial style makes folks uncomfortable. This isn’t because Lee’s films are no-holds-barred social commentary (which they often are), but more the tenor of his films makes the general public look inside themselves in trying to identify with Lee’s characters. And Lee’s characters are seldom flat, easy to understand stereotypes. Almost his entire dramatis personae are hard-edged, conflicted, very real people with very real issues, both emotional and situational. Lee’s work has always held up a mirror for America’s audiences, and sometimes America doesn’t like what it sees. At least, what they see in themselves.

For example—probably the primary one—take Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing (duh, of course I’m gonna start there). That volatile, long, hot summer day of antagonism and racial prejudice really smacked people around back in the 80s. These days the film might come across a little preachy for today’s audiences, and at times may been seen as comical, sometimes delving perilously close into self-parody.

Regardless of how Thing was or might be perceived, it can’t be denied that the movie struck a chord with audiences of all stripes, and not in some squishy, Forrest Gump kind of way. That subtle-as-a-flying-mallet delivery Lee’s been engaging in for over a quarter century is his stock in trade. Like I said, perhaps audiences and Hollywood alike attach his confrontational nature and perceived vitriol directly with his public image and/or dire filmography. It’s no secret that Lee is outspoken, sometimes brash and very opinionated (for all the right reasons), but beyond that he’s a storyteller with something to say, and obviously a man with a lot on his mind.

I think Lee’s rep is yet another example of both Hollywood’s mill-churning, entertainment media’s less than objective marketing or image and a hostile, ignorant audience who can’t face the man in the mirror. I’ve watched a lot of Lee’s movies—not all. There are only so many hours in a life—and what I’ve walked away with from all of them is being entertained (granted in a discomforting way), having some thoughts provoked, some really 3D character acting and the feeling the guy never gets his due. Sure, Lee’s respected in the film world, but not so much within the glitzy Hollywood club. In fact, Lee’s CV reads as anti-Hollywood, especially since almost all his work is set in and around NYC. Being removed from Tinsel Town’s ethos of bigger, better, faster, shinier, more Lee’s carved out a unique voice in the filmmaking community. And all that being outspoken has done him good as well as earned some derision.

I want to talk about that in specific. Okay, I said that Lee’s adept in holding up the mirror. Also the general public doesn’t like that too much; they’d rather sit in their comfy couches of ignorance and judgment and not have their coats tugged on. I think that’s where the often naked hostility towards Lee’s films in general and Lee in specific comes into play. As the media hypes it, we’re being told to confuse the artist with the art. Again, Lee’s obstinate and firm in his beliefs, and his movies illustrate that, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that whenever he gets in front of the camera to talk at—not to, at—ET or Hollywood Insider two faces are being shown. One of the man and his muse, and the other the social mirror. Lee’s canny in this light; the whole “no such thing as bad press” bullish*t. Give the buzzards what they want to hear and give the plovers the chance to hear what he has to say.

Do I have to explain the “plover” metaphor? It’s a positive one. Let’s leave it at that. You go f*ck around on Wikipedia on your own time.

At the end of the day, discounting all the media muck that gets shoveled Lee’s way, his work is vital, seminal, intriguing and always well-shot and well-acted. It’s also ugly, but in a good way. People need the mirror now and again, and Lee is adept at polishing it.

Part of the skill is directly related to where he shoots most of all his movies: NYC. Growing up in Brooklyn you can be sure as eggs is eggs that Lee quickly gained a significant view on the City’s ebbing and flowing, the millions of souls. There is no other city on Earth where such a diverse, disparate population converge and, more often, collide. Do The Right Thing was the penultimate sentiment regarding this dynamic, and the film’s outcome was all too common, the message all too biting.

There is a bitter, brittle undercurrent to Lee’s films. Despite the City being a melange of cultures, ostensibly trying to cohabitate with one another, it seldom works out that way. With all those differences, things just don’t seem to want to iron out. The endgame is more often conflict and further aggression than “Kumbaya.” But that’s how it goes. No pity in the big City.

This bitterness seems to be all well and good for Lee’s films that primarily star black characters. Here we go with the mirror again. It’s all too easy for Middle America to accept black characters as aggressive, fractured and torn. I mean, that’s how its been for centuries in the good ol’ USA, right? Blacks are marginalized and naturally are pissed off and unafraid to make their voices heard (at least within the past 50 years). More or less, this has been Lee’s oeuvre, for good and for ill. Despite all the feathers ruffled from Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X—his best movie, IMHO. Awesome—Jungle Fever, and Bamboolzed (okay, that was one deliberate ruffling, with ridges), folks have grown to accept, albeit not completely by any means, Lee’s characters being disenfranchised. It’s as if average white audiences who take in Lee’s films are either doing so out of curiosity, bleeding heart liberal guilt or the movies’ reputation.

That itself is curious, because whenever Lee’s flips the coin and has a primarily white cast, there’s an uproar from the other side of the fence. Even if all of Lee’s trademarks are present, no matter how well the movie is executed, no matter how f*cking good it is, the guy can’t win (although he never comes across as wanting it both ways). In such a case, that outspoken social critic takes even more flak now for having fractured, alienated white characters face struggles and prejudices within their own ranks.

It’s probably an open secret that black audiences have embraced Lee’s work as their own. And just their own. After years of Lee filming stories of inner city blacks with all the strife and triumph so keenly, to cast a bunch of white folks in a Lee movie may be perceived as betrayal, as well as more passive fuel for a fire. Same goes for the entertainment media. What business does Lee have in filming a movie about whites’ issues? He ain’t white. So says most of his black fans, too, I’ll bet.

When Lee’s urban historical Summer Of Sam dropped in 1999 there came this unnecessary foofaraw about, “Hey, where are all the black people?” This came from audiences and reporters alike, like Lee was unqualified to shoot a film about a very real piece of immediate history in his hometown (one which he lived through). I guess the whole race thing got stuck to Lee’s ass like an infected carbuncle so much he shouldn’t be allowed to “branch out.”

It’s not as if Sam deviated so far from Lee’s style as to be an affront. For those who haven’t seen the movie here’s a simple synopsis: a docudrama illustrating the social climate and paranoia in a Brooklyn neighborhood during the murder spree by the serial killer the Son Of Sam. It had a predominantly white cast, featuring Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, John Leguizamo and Jennifer Esposito. And Lee got grief for this.

Why? The movie was pointed and great, with all Lee’s hallmarks of social commentary and culture clash. It still rolled like a Lee film, and with all great directors, don’t they usually have an élan that reeks of a signature style? I mean, Scorsese didn’t get much friction for The Age Of Innocence (a film about classism) and critical acclaim for Taxi Driver (a film with quite a few racial undertones). It’s not like he took a lefty and cut a Sandler lowbrow comedy (I know, redundant). So why did Lee get grief?

He went and held the mirror directly in front of white people, and white people only. And him being a black man? The nerve! Just when you think you understood Spike Lee—whoops!—he goes and turns the tables. But not really; you just had your attention elsewhere.

Without going too far into it (that’s what the later gnashing is for), 25th Hour saw the same bullish*t. It’s why it fell under The Standard. That and the low score at the box office. Here were have another New York Story, featuring troubled white folks. But this is Spike Lee, and the cast doesn’t overall matter. Hour, like Sam (like Do The Right Thing, etc) is about NYC, the people who live there and what they must do to survive, race and class serving as the wallpaper. It’s still signature Lee commentary and story all the way, regardless of who starred in it.

All in all it really doesn’t matter; the race relations, the urban blight, the classism, etc. Lee’s been all about the City first, and whatever social issues he wants to address rides on the five boroughs’ back. Black or white (or Asian of Latino or Muslim or what have you), Lee’s muse has always been the people of New York and how they (try to) relate to one another. Seems to me that’s Lee’s whole raison d’être, regardless of what his audiences—the media or the ticket holders—feel. Lee’s main character has always been the City.

Not some drug dealer losing his freedom. Not really…


Monty Brogan (Norton) has led a pretty good life. Nice apartment. Cool car. Loyal pooch. And his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Naturelle (Dawson), has been nothing but loving and committed for years.


Monty’s lived the good life at his own peril. Dealing drugs to make a living can do that. Someone tipped off the cops, and after a raid on Monty’s apartment—yielding a discovery of a crazy stash of heroin and an even crazier amount of laundered money—the smooth operator gets dragged downtown.


“Don’t even think of leaving town,” comes the order. Monty’s now facing at least seven years for his misdeeds. At least that. The evidence is damning, and the likelihood of Monty throwing himself at the mercy of the court for a wrist slap is not looking too good. With all that dope and cash? Pipe dream.

So now looking down the barrel of pulling hard time—and with his soft looks and cocky personality—losing his freedom for his crimes might be the easier thing about being incarcerated. The possibility of Monty ending up being married to the man with the most cigarettes seems more likely. The whole notion of “not leaving town” feels increasingly more laughable.

Monty chooses the only sensible thing to do with his last day of freedom. He rounds up his buddies Jake (Hoffman) and Frank (Pepper) for one last night on the town. Monty and his childhood friends’ lives diverged in very different ways, to say the least. Jake is a respected, albeit milquetoast English teacher with a Lolita complex. Frank is a manic, smarmy day trader who routinely mainlines Red Bull into his femoral artery and ego. Well aware of Monty’s fate, both feel it proper—nay, necessary—to pay a kind of favor to Monty. Call it for old times’ sake. Perhaps the last time.

Beyond this final boys’ night out Monty has a few, final loose ends to tie up. Show his wingmen the perks of an exclusive, underworld nightclub. Make some sort of amends with his brittle Pop (Cox) who tried and failed to steer Monty right. Most importantly, figure out who the f*ck ratted him out.

It’s gonna feel like a short night for Monty Brogan, but not long enough…

Feels like I got a bit too academic with the intro. I mean, there’s a lot to dig into regarding Spike Lee’s moviemaking. A lot to break down. Still, I needn’t throw one of Ebert’s many, many books at your face. But you gotta admit, with Lee’s stuff there’s a lot to plumb, even with his less than even hand at storytelling.

Lee’s got this knack—or curse, deepening on whom you ask—for being blunt. His sledgehammer-like delivery is what knocks audiences to the floor. Now I know I quail on and off and on again about my favorite aspect about a movie’s narrative (and no, I’m actually not talking about pacing for once) a lot, but here it really matters. As far as Lee’s style goes.

Subtlety. The kind of stuff in a movie like a Highlights For Children‘s “Hidden Pictures” segment. You know, pictures within pictures. I know that sounds like a Rush lyric, but noodle it out. Lee’s work is always up in your grill, next to no subtlety. It’s all there for you. In Hour, Lee affects a sort of Hitchcock-esque method of dropping the dime without placing the call. Hour is rife with obvious bits and pieces alluding to the undercurrents of the story, but delivered in an, “Oh, I get it” kind of way.

Call it “overt subtlety.” Yeah, I know. A contradiction in terms. Shut it. The devils in Hour are not just the details, but like chess pieces, how they are placed. Played.

At the opening of the film (hell, even before the movie properly starts) we see the Touchstone logo backed by the sounds of a dog being pummeled. The opening scene? Monty rescues said dog who later becomes his pet. Not sure of the symbolism, but it’s there. Maybe it relates to the whole post-9/11 NYC seam that wends its way in and out of the ensuing movie. Maybe. I dunno.

Other bits of Lee’s overt subtlety; his approach at restraint? Well, we all probably remember the symbolic spotlights strategically placed and shining where WTC 1 and 2 once stood. There’s the scene where Monty’s sitting on a bench denying one of his “customers” a fix while we see out protag staring balefully out at the river, the bars of the railing framing his face. Bars? Hmm. Also the trophy scene, towards the rear. The way out, Monty. You took it. It’s all excellent framing, and it’s maintained throughout the duration of the film. It’s a tad chewier than any trash can thrown through a window.

All such scenes are delicious wallpaper—bookends, rather—to the acting. No one in the world of Hour is an empty shell, waiting for the audience to pour all their pathos into the actors like some sort of emotional canteen. They’re all solidly, fully-formed people right out of the gate. Norton’s portrayal of Monty, despite all shiny on the outside is showing signs of tarnish, wears his heart on his sleeve regardless of his trashy circumstances (slick drug dealer and a guy trying to be decent alike). He knows his life’s been sh*t, but he keeps his cool. Until he can’t.

The late Hoffman as Jake. God, he was a good actor, what with his honest, melty face. Very versatile, despite the roles he got dealt (either louts or effete snobs. Sometimes both). Here in Hour, he excels at playing the innocent, even in a winking manner. His Jake is Humbert Humbert, minus the outright perviness yet still broken and creepy (despite the object of his misplaced affection, Paquin’s Mary, his modern day bipolar Lolita). Jake should be the kind of guy within Monty’s circle that has earned the most esteem. But for all his image of scholarly reticence, Jake is desperate, fragile and quite f*cked up. He wears that ball cap as a shroud. You want to put your arm around him, reassure him everything’s gonna be okay. Jake needs a few stiff drinks in him, but you know just one’s gonna make him toss his cookies.

It’s the unexpected opposite of what you’d get out of Pepper’s Frank. Within the first 30 seconds of his appearance, Pepper is totally forgiven for playing a part in Battlefield: Earth. His fast-talking, greasy, unshaven Frank is the proper emotional crutch Monty leans on. Despite his whiplash delivery (and strung-out temperament), Frank plays d’Artagnan to Jake’s schlumpy Porthos, always Monty’s biggest booster no matter what’s gone down in the past, for better or worse. His sharp features with that glare illustrates the realist (his make-up job is crucial), and is at times not so subtle about reminding Monty of what’s at stake. Been at stake. For better or worse? Feels like worse here, but it’s never going to be truly over with this guy. All these guys.

Frank’s role here may also be part of the post 9/11 undercurrent I mentioned earlier. Sure, he’s slicker than snot, but look where his apartment’s located. Overlooking Ground Zero (that little chat he has with Jake burns, and all the more crucial for it). Seems like Frank’s edginess is deliberately forced, a carefully assumed stance. It was the World Trade Centers that were knocked down. Is the stricken trader the post-9/11 straw man? Is the allegory in overdrive, despite the time frame? You decide.

Amongst Monty, Frank and Jake we get the classic balance of id/ego/superego. Think Star Trek. Frank is irascible Dr McCoy, Jake is the thoughtful Spock and Monty is our relatable everyman Kirk. I’m not aware of many movies that work this triad so well as is done with Hour. We had Ferris, Cameron and Sloane, Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint. Even Harry, Ron and Hermoine. All good examples of movie trios bouncing their personalities off one another creating great tension, humor and unity. Monty, Jake and Frank is another fine example. Despite their obvious differences, and where the paths of their lives took them, these guys are friends.

This friendship is like a fresh dartboard. All the shots are clean. Sure, Monty’s frayed friendships feel like their failing further (especially when Jake and Frank become passive sounding boards), but putting Monty’s plight and his interactions on the back burner, Hour‘s alpha plot is really just a vehicle to drive through Lee’s true muse here: New York. Like I said earlier, this film isn’t really about Monty’s waning freedom. It’s about the City, a character in and of itself trying to deal with the wounds inflicted in the fall of 2001. Hour is a post-9/11 snapshot, plain and simple. Sure, there’s a lot of great pathos and intriguing characters, but all that is merely a device for Lee to convey his signature social commentary. And his commentary is always about “us.” In this case, the us isn’t just Monty and Co. It’s the tapestry of people, a microcosm of the planet as a whole, that is New York in relation to “them.” It’s the intangible them that upset the balance of the City and the country? No, it’s always been us according to Lee. And he may be right.

I’m gonna segue into the tech stuff of Hour now (I know you’ve been wringing your greasy, little hands in anticipation). Lee’s always been adept in using cinematography. Hour‘s no less exceptional, and we’re not just talking the skyline here. All the close-ups and face time are wonderfully framed. It’s like every conversation had let’s us in on a secret, being it intimate details, heartfelt hands on the shoulder or screeching rants.

Speaking of rants—which serve as Lee’s aforementioned social critique and plea for understanding—Monty’s (infamous) racist soliloquy in the mirror deriding every single minority group in the City (and perhaps outside of it, too) is reminiscent of Do The Right Thing‘s endless racial criticism. Hour‘s tirade-cum-montage is another piece of Lee’s post-9/11 deconstruction. The City is fractured, but it needs everyone to make it right again. Or at least tolerable.

However Lee isn’t without a reflective side here (for once). The opposite of Monty’s screed comes in the form of his Pop’s homily towards the end of the film regarding REDACTED. Like the City, the rest of the country is a crazy quilt of humanity, and by Lee’s lens the answers don’t necessarily lie outside New York, but maybe an idea does (by the way, I feel Brian Cox is a highly underrated character actor. Hey, if the guy was the first to portray Hannibal Lecter on screen doesn’t count for something, I can’t say what would).

Other cool technical flourishes I dug about Hour are many, but since we’re heading into a length that would give Tolstoy a run for his rubles I’ll try and reel it back. This film has some of the best flashback editing I haven’t seen since the original Highlander. That’s a complement. Most of the time in movies, the need to show backstory rather than tell it can be abrupt if not jarring. No so with Hour. In fact, scene moves from scene so deftly it takes a moment or two to understand we’ve shifted the story back a few years (or forward in some cases). All of it enriches Monty’s tale of rising and falling and perhaps heading towards redemption. There’s a definite trail of breadcrumbs here, but where it leads is uncertain. I like that.

We got some smart music going on here. I’m a Terence Blanchard fan, so sue me. The opening theme is menacing as well as insinuating. Let’s prime the pump for our ensuing voyage into the belly of the broken beast that is post-9/11 New York. The soundtrack creeps and crawls in and out of the scenes, almost a character unto itself. Sure, sometimes the music gets cranked up to 11 needlessly (barring club scenes and antisocial activities), but overall Blanchard’s score, well, scores the goal of wry grunge that accompanies the movie’s heavy story.

There are some aspects of the story that even Lee couldn’t resist pressing his thumbs into. Like all the small social interactions. It was kind of hard to separate the everyday things from happening anywhere else but New York. Maybe it’s Lee wearing his heart on his sleeve again. I don’t know, but I got the suspicion that a lot of the more intimate dialogue in the movie (e.g.: the excellent bar chat, the strategic humor, etc) could only have happened in the City. Lee’s got a keen ear for New York patois, and it’s adding to the ambience just reinforces the director’s entrenched affinity for his hometown. Call it soft Spike, and it’s a balm to the near relentless stress of the alpha plot. It’s where the humanity comes through, which is the sub-theme of the story proper.

The final act of Hour (save the mirror rant) was considered the most controversial by the general public (as far I know from Twitter feeds). There were the three crucial scenes strung together. First, Monty uncovering who the stooge was and discovers his lost humor and honor in the process; second, the “rescue brawl” between Frank and Monty, and; third, Pop’s montage. All three are intense, and all three fail to wrap up the story. This is a good thing, if not the inevitable.

One last time, the underlying message of Hour is about how the City and its denizens are trying to recover from 9/11. All is uncertain. When Monty finally learns who the stooge is, it doesn’t rectify his impending prison sentence. Sure, he rediscovers a sense of humor about things, and maybe some sense of honor lost along the way, but it don’t get him any closer to regaining a life. It’s a tad obvious if you pay attention.

When Monty begs Frank to beat the stuffing out of him so to appear “hard” to his future inmates (good make-up artist. Blech), how’s that for a direct punch (sorry) about a wounded city? I’d like to think we all have a bit of fight in them like Frank: reluctant but was always brewing. When we are hurt, we want to lash out, swing at ghosts, but it never leads to anything. Only desperation and a feeling of emptiness and futility. Especially so when even after you release it all that’s left is a lingering sense of hurt.

I adored the final montage. It’s the opposite en toto of the mirror scene. Pop’s bittersweet monologue paints a picture of hope to be found within the future; the possibilities that could be in moving forward and getting on with life, even if that life isn’t “yours.” It’s a beautifully etched notion of “life goes on.” And it does, but sometimes painfully and reluctantly.

Downbeat, I know. But Lee’s snapshot does not lend a silver lining. Nor should it. Sometimes his brusque, outspoken, mirror-holding style works wonders, especially for a painfully real illustration of a broken man, broken friendships and a broken city. I guess at the end of the day, Hour tells not only a story of loss but also of possible recovery. Lee’s mirror is still reflecting, but this time out there’s a little grime smeared on its surface. Not unlike the view from Frank’s apartment.

Let’s leave it at that. I’ve already gone on too long with this installment. I think all the bases were covered, and maybe re-covered three times over. Sorry. I guess I did too much navel-gazing dissecting Hour, but there was a lot going on here. The movie was engaging, thought-provoking and more than a little disturbing. And all for the better.

One more thing. It was hard to take apart Hour while being a smartass. I know my trademark snark was all but absent this time out. Too bad.

I didn’t feel the movie deserved it.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Big shocker, there. Despite the heavy atmosphere, Hour had an engaging story, great acting and all the hard-angled, poignant hallmarks of a Spike Lee film. With or without black people.

Stray Observations…

  • “Just curious…”
  • What was with the double shot embrace thing? I mean, I took apart virtually every nut and bolt in Hour, yet this obvious bloop escaped me.
  • “I wanna be that girl in the X-Men.” She’ll be by in the next scene.
  • BTW, Paquin does not look 17.
  • “You got all kinds of nights.”
  • Two phones.
  • “Look out for your field trip.”
  • This film illustrates all the proper scenarios for taking a drink. Some things are a dying art.
  • “You’re not gonna be there tomorrow, and there’s only tomorrow.”
  • There was something about the bathroom scene in the club, besides the obvious Hitchcock element.
  • “The leash is yours.” Enjoy your life.
  • First saw this movie as part of my wife’s Ed Norton binge years ago. He’s her have actor.
  • “Cool dog.”

Next Installment…

We pay a visit to Jeff, Who Lives At Home with his Mom. Still.