3 a.m.

Spike Lee protege Lee Davis makes an impressive debut with "3 a.m.," an ensemble piece tracing NYC cab drivers over 36 hours' course. Offbeat, feature is a bit too much the mood piece to court crossover theatrical gigs. But its generally deft mix of comedy, drama and suspense suggest Davis is more than ready for bigscreen assignments.

Spike Lee protege Lee Davis makes an impressive writing-directing debut with “3 a.m.,” a slice-of-life ensemble piece tracing NYC cab drivers over 36 hours’ course. Offbeat if not particularly original, Showtime-produced feature is a bit too much the ephemeral mood piece to court crossover theatrical gigs. But its generally deft mix of comedy, drama and suspense, along with canny handling of a terrific cast, suggest Davis is more than ready for bigscreen assignments.

Hovering somewhere between Robert Altman and Mike Figgis terrain, pic casts a noirish atmosphere over multiethnic, working-class characters grounded in everyday urban reality. Most are employed by the Lady Luck Cab Co., a struggling family biz now run by founder’s daughter Box (Sarita Choudhury). Committed to keeping her late pa’s enterprise alive, she’s been forced to become a ruthless negotiator and penny-pinching boss. Even so, Lady Luck teeters on the verge of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, her drivers are just trying to make a living, working long hours under dangerous conditions. Former pro boxer Hershey (Danny Glover), having already lost one wife on his slide down the economic ladder, is eager not to lose the affections of g.f. George (Pam Grier), a waitress at the diner Luck cabbies patronize. Her patience is wearing thin, however, especially, as story progress keeps waylaying Hershey from their planned big night out.

Also cruising the mean streets is Salgado (Michelle Rodriguez), a tough-as-nails Latina whose temper roils at the constant hey-pretty-mama harassment from both fares and fellow drivers. Bosnian refugee Rasha (Sergej Trifunovic), haunted by his family’s violent end, has trouble concentrating at the wheel — one more accident and Box will fire him. On-the-make Jose (Bobby Cannavale) figures it’s his lucky day when he comes into possession of a briefcase full of stolen money.

Additional figures drift in and out of the picture, each with their own briskly etched agendas and personal quirks. Spooking them all is a still-at-large cabby killer who’s claimed victims at an escalating pace for several days. Pic intros a supernatural element with this serial slayer, whose initial appearances are obscured by darkness and cigarette smoke. He may be some sort of demonic figure — or, we soon suspect, a psychological “demon” driving unstable Salgado to paranoid acts.

Despite thriller hook, “3 a.m.” is primarily a series of character-driven vignettes, couched in a grudging yet affectionate paean to gritty Big Apple life. Davis sometimes sacrifices depth to pace, resulting in a few choppy transitions and over-compressed subplots. For the most part, though, he juggles various story threads with understated confidence.

Outstanding thesp scroll is ballasted by Glover’s appeal as the simple, bone-tired but eminently warm-hearted Hershey. His on-again-off-again romance with George (played by Grier in fine, relaxed form) provides viewers with a real rooting interest.

Rodriguez proves her intense bow in last year’s indie hit “Girlfight” was no fluke; she makes Salgado’s coiled anger and possible insanity palpable, resisting caricature in a role that’s the script’s diciest contrivance.

Cast against type, Choudhury (“Kama Sutra”) registers strongly (if too briefly) as a woman not at all happy with the cold pragmatist she’s become. Other notable turns include Mike Starr as Theo, George’s tough-talking yet fatherly boss, and Paul Calderon as a diner regular determined to court her away from Hershey. Among familiar faces popping up in cameos are performance artist Danny Hoch, producer Lee (as a chatty sports-fan fare), Roger Rees, Fisher Stevens and NBA legend Walt Frazier, plus hip-hop vets Pepa (of Salt & Pepa) and Treach (Naughty by Nature).

Smoothly crafted pic could have used a tad more visual invention to heighten its shifts between realism and dreamlike ambiguity. Pacing is assured, atmosphere ideally complemented by Branford Marsalis’ cool jazz score.

3 a.m.

  • Production: A Showtime Networks presentation of a 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks production. Produced by Spike Lee, Sam Kitt. Executive producer, Danny Glover. Co-executive producer, Paul Kurta. Co-producers, Callum Greene, Anthony G. Katagas. Directed, screenplay by Lee Davis.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Enrique Chediak; editor, Susan E. Morse; music, Branford Marsalis; production designer, Ted Glass; art director, Douglas Ellis; set decorator, Andrew Baseman; costume designer, Luca Mosca; sound,(Dolby Digital), Todd Milner; assistant director, Sarah Gyllenstierna; additional camera, Jon Bentham; casting, Lina Todd. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 27, 2001. Running time: 91 MIN.
  • With: Hershey - Danny Glover George - Pam Grier Salgado - Michelle Rodriguez Rasha - Sergej Trifunovic Box - Sarita Choudhury Angus - Isaach De Bankole Theo - Mike Starr Ralph - Paul Calderon Jose - Bobby Cannavale <B>With:</B> Arjun G. Awtramani, Aasif Mandvi, Eric Chan, John Ortiz, Marika Dominczyk, Bonz Malone, Sixto Ramos, Bekir Kurtis, Jack Dimich, Danny Hoch, Iraida Polanco, James Fiero, Christina Osorio, Brian Donahue, JD Martinez, Spike Lee, Treach, Keith Elam, Brandon Jenkins, Rafael Osario, August Casseus, Melanie Torres, Roger Rees, Daniel E. Jones, Sharon Washington, Fisher Stevens, Rahul Khanna, Pepa, Walt Frazier, Quanzilla, Leslie Segar, Bill Golodner, Nadeen Gautier.