If you were to compile a list of cinema's greatest monologues, Edward Norton's masterful raging rant in Spike Lee's The 25th Hour would likely make the list. Norton is a charismatic and remarkably centered cinematic tour-de-force, whether tackling comedy or drama or anything in between. Just the notion of pairing Norton with the iconic Robert DeNiro is enough to make fans of great cinema salivate at the possibilities.
Put away your tongues.
While DeNiro and Norton are a joy to behold in John Curran's Stone, the film itself barely registers a recommendation and falls significantly short of its inherent potential. Norton is Stone, an incarcerated young man who wants to be paroled...he's rehabilitated, ya know? DeNiro is Mabry, the church-going parole officer who will decide Stone's fate. Mabry has, of course, heard virtually every line before but Stone has (or does he?) a secret weapon in the form of his beautiful wife (Milla Jovovich), a sexy and seductive woman who wants her man back and is seemingly willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Verbal jousting is a specialty of Norton and, while it has been quite awhile since DeNiro went this direction cinematically, this is the type of performance that made the actor a Hollywood legend. Directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil, also starring Norton) and written by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug), Stone is the kind of film that hits you over the head with metaphors (Surely by now you've figured out that both men are made of "stone," hehe, get it?) but thinks it's being brilliant in the process.
Unfortunately, nothing particularly brilliant happens in Stone and it's only the sparks that fly between DeNiro and Norton that allows this film to rise above its nearly destined trip to mediocrity or straight-to-video. DeNiro hasn't been this spot-on in several years, and Norton is clearly relishing the chance to verbally spar with him. The result is, at times, pure ecstasy.
MacLachlan does deserve credit for refusing to paint the film with black-and-white characters, neither Stone nor Mabry being particularly sympathetic or, for that matter, non-sympathetic. This kind of ambiguity can be difficult for escapism seeking moviegoers, but those who can appreciate cinema that requires a bit of cognitive ability will find it refreshing and nicely brought to life by both DeNiro and Norton. While she doesn't necessarily show up her cinematic cohorts, Stone is another step forward for Jovovich, who is slowly proving herself able to move beyond the Resident Evil films.
One gets the sense that the original script felt weightier than what is left on the screen here, as if Curran didn't quite trust his material or, god forbid, his actors and watered down the film's morality and morality. In its place, such unnecessary gimmicks as an AM Radio religious talk show and a histrionic seriousness detract from the film's performances and its natural drama.
While a B- grade and 2.5 star rating still warrants a modest recommendation, it's a definite disappointment given the acting weight and dramatic potential contained in Stone. While Curran very nearly allows the film to collapse, the leading trio is simply too good to allow such a thing to happen and if only to watch the sparks fly between DeNiro and Norton along with the continued growth of Jovovich this film is definitely worth a matinee view.