“Monty’s going to prison. He’s a doughnut. He’s a big, fat zero.” In “25th Hour,” even this debriefing gives away the ending.

The movie depicts a busted drug dealer as he spends his last free day before a seven-year jail sentence. There is little development considering the action within the film occurs within a 24-hour period. The protagonist Monty (Edward Norton) walks around the block, meets up with his dad, his two buddies — Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Francis (Barry Pepper) — and his girlfriend and later gets a ride to jail. By confining the time frame of action, director Spike Lee allows himself the space in which to magnify his protagonist’s choices and expressions: How do I want to spend this day? How do I feel today? The film’s structure, emphasizing the present, fits well with its main subject.

To Lee’s and his cast’s credit, the film abstains from sentimentalizing the drama, which bears plenty of potential energy toward that direction. The acting always remains believable, and certainly reaches the heights of amazing, but more often plateaus on the level of good. The impulse to sit around for the next screening never occurred to me (as it often does). My 18-year-old brother, however, did see it twice and liked it better the second time, mostly due to Ed Norton’s status as demi-god. If you want to see Norton at his best, stick with “American History X” and “Fight Club,” but “25th Hour” is worth a video rental.

The dialogue itself (written by David Benioff, based on his novel) deserves attention for superceding yet never losing its foothold in the manner of street talk. Certain lines contain enough bravado to be indoctrinated into the movie lines hall of fame. For example, while on the job Frank tells a junior finance buckaroo, “You know you’re wearing a striped shirt with a striped tie? Did the ladies ever tell you you look like an optical illusion?”

The film peaks memorably in its peripheral scenes. But this overcrowding of charged, tangential themes frustrates any advancement of the plot. The scene of Monty’s diatribe against minorities and any sort of labeled target in general, including Jesus Christ, contains one of the movie’s coolest effects, but yet seems strikingly off-kilter with the movie thus far. Such montages appear unnaturally quilted onto the movie. And yet without these patches, the film would lose its distinctive Lee punch, which draws so many into the theater in the first place.

Overt references to Sept. 11, including firefighter portraits in Monty’s father’s bar, seem again more like an insertion than something necessary for or natural within the story. And yet Lee merits respect for dealing directly with issues of the day. His political nature and position as a minority function both to burden and elevate his work.

Though “25th Hour” does not achieve greatness, Lee crafts his film with many touches of poeticism. His editing sweetly reverberates with shots that emphasize human touch, such as when Monty’s girlfriend reaches out to her man on the street. Lee’s direction of actors and setting within the frame also make the important relationships poignant — when Frank and Jacob, waiting for Monty, with a view overlooking Ground Zero. This agile style of shooting marks Lee’s progress from his earlier, bullish, “Do the Right Thing.” Such scenes appear graceful without losing that dynamism characteristic of a Spike Lee Joint.