Directed by Ted Demme. Starring Denis Leary, Jason Barry, Billy Crudup, John Diehl, Greg Dulli, Nah Emmerich, Ian Hart, Famke Janssen, Colm Meaney, Martin Sheen, Jeanne Tripplehorn. (1998, R, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 30, 1998
If you only know Denis Leary from comic roles such as The Ref (also directed by Demme) or his stand-up routines, this movie may come as a bit of a shock. Leary, Demme, and screenwriter Mike Armstrong have come up with a brilliant, harrowing portrait of misplaced loyalties and savage valor that may be one of the best character-driven ensemble pieces to come around in some time. Mining his old-school memories of the fightin' Irish Boston neighborhood where he was raised, Leary plays Bobby O'Grady, a thirtysomething hoodlum who's never managed to leave behind his working-class Charlestown community. Although it's only a tiny, one-square-mile swath of land, the old neighborhood is a fiercely proud and self-supporting separate community. At night Bobby and his friends -- Red (Emmerich), Mouse (Hart), and Digger (Diehl) -- steal cars, get high on Harp Lager and cocaine, and exist in a perpetually hyper state of arrested adolescence. Lording it over the neighborhood like a two-bit Jimmy Cagney is Jackie O (Meaney), a paranoid gangster wannabe whose petty criminal schemes are as stagnant as Bobby's toadyism. When Jackie has Bobby's cokehead cousin Teddy (Crudup) killed in cold blood on the off chance that the youngster was a snitch, Bobby's allegiance begins to swing from one end of the scale to the other, all while carrying on an affair with the boss' saturnine moll Katy (Janssen). Monument Ave. contains echoes of plenty of other urban wolfpack films, from De Niro's A Bronx Tale to everything Scorsese ever did, but it at least feels wildly dissimilar. Leary, for his part, plays Bobby straight, never giving in to the omnipresent opportunities that arise to make the character more sympathetic than he actually is. A closet nihilist with a black-leather-jacket affectation and a weakness for stimulants, Bobby is nonetheless the conscience of the film. When his cousin Seamus (Barry), just off the boat from Dublin, falls prey to Jackie's gangster-sized ego, Bobby snaps in just the right way. Unlike so many other portraits of urban life in America, Monument Ave. never feels like a sham; from Bobby's misbegotten cronies on down to his alcoholic, aged mother, the film rings true, and is all the more powerful for it. Demme, as well, is firing on all points. He's cut the film with a ragged-yet-seamless style, inserting childhood photos of better daze to underscore his thematics and even tossing a few freeze-framed Kodak moments that feel as natural as the .38 in Bobby's pocket. Don't be put off by a storyline that sounds all too familiar -- Monument Ave. is a punchy and ultimately sorrowful (not to mention soulful) meditation on fractious brotherhood and bad decisions, tough stuff all the way around.