Relatively few American directors can legitimately claim to be auteurs: Stone, Scorsese, Spielberg, Soderbergh, Spike... Whether hitting (Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever) or missing (Girl 6, Crooklyn), Lee is always distinctive, always imposing. His films stand out like Roger Moore in Harlem.
The story was overwhelmed by sermonising in Lee's last joint, Bamboozled, but the irascible basketball junkie is back, proving he's still got game with 25th Hour - another powerful and moving New York story.
As in Summer Of Sam, the Big Apple is a city scarred - then by a predatory serial killer, here by the World Trade Center attack. Twin spotlights shoot high into the night sky, dwarfing skyscrapers during the opening credits; characters discuss the fate of a friend while overlooking Ground Zero; the lead's failings and choices parallel those of the United States...
It's a marvel that the subtext doesn't smother the story, but it's a simple, compelling tale. Convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) has 24 hours of freedom before he goes upstate for a seven-year stretch. He knows his pretty boy looks guarantee a sentence of sexual servitude, so he has a day to either skip town or suck it and see. Credibility issues aside (would a convicted felon be given such an easy opportunity to bunk off?), his dilemma is a taxing one. Sure, he could just leave. But is a life on the run any life at all? And what's the point if he'll never again stroll along Manhattan's streets, or see his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) or best mates (Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman)? And besides, wouldn't he be better off using the time to tie up loose ends and bring some semblance of order to his broken life?
It's a tale of moral choice and redemption, and in less talented hands, it could be sluggish, self-indulgent or sentimental. But Lee's visuals zing, while David Benioff - scripting from his own novel - creates believable characters. Just as interesting as Monty are his mates, each brought to life through bravura performances. Dawson copes with an implausible name (Naturelle Rivera? Come on!) to convincingly embody an ambiguous character, happy to live off Monty's ill-gotten gains, but reluctant to realise she's morally culpable for both Monty's conviction and the disintegration of his customers. Hoffman, meanwhile, is perfect as a nebbish teacher with a crush on a student. "Who do you think you are, R Kelly?" demands Pepper, giving the standout turn in a strong ensemble, as a hawkish city slicker who secretly knows there's very little meaning behind all the money sloshing around.
The final 10 minutes sail into Spielbergian sentimentality and again verify that Lee really doesn't know when to end a movie, but this is still an impressive, affecting return to form from one of Hollywood's finest filmmakers.