Edward Norton stammered on autopilot through most of ''Red Dragon,'' but in Spike Lee's 25th Hour, he plays a yuppie New York drug dealer who has only one day to go before submitting to a seven-year prison stretch, and the role plays right into Norton's gift for letting brainy anxiety detonate just beneath the surface of a scene. If Dustin Hoffman had been born a WASP, he might have turned out something like Norton, who knows how to exploit the contrast between his quick, halting, throwaway voice and his tennis-jock physique to portray nervy young men of questing rationality.
At first, Norton's Monty Brogan seems a bit too unruffled. As he ponders the loyalty of his trophy Latina girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and gathers his two boyhood chums -- Frank (Barry Pepper), a Wall Street shark, and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a dowdy prep-school teacher -- for one last night of freedom, we have lots of time to wonder how, exactly, these three ever remained friends in the first place. But then Lee stages a long, bravura nightclub sequence in which the men let their guards down, and we see that Monty, for all the superficial acceptance of his fate, is living in a frozen state of terror and denial. Lee, as he did in ''Malcolm X'' and ''Clockers,'' makes his hero's dread palpable, and though ''25th Hour'' lacks the glittering brilliance of those films, I was held by the toughness and pity of Lee's gaze.