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Life Is Bleak Along 'Monument Ave.'


Ted Demme's bleak yet compelling "Monument Ave." takes its title from the street that has come to divide the old Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, whose working-class Irish settled there a century ago, and the surrounding area, which has become increasingly gentrified. Bobby O'Grady (Denis Leary) and his lifelong Charlestown pals may resent the intrusion of yuppies, but the newcomers also provide more goodies to steal.

At the beginning of "Monument Ave.," Bobby, at 33 and still living with his parents, pretty much accepts his lot in life, which means that he and his friends have chosen petty crime over factory work (which is probably dwindling anyway). While not so sophisticated as to resist wearing ridiculous outsized sideburns, Bobby is clearly more intelligent, more reflective, than the others he hangs with, and in a sense this will be his curse.

Mike Armstrong's relentlessly downbeat script allows Demme to develop an ensnaring camaraderie coupled with a dark destructiveness that recalls Eugene O'Neill. "Monument Ave." begins on a fairly light note, taking its time to acquaint us with Bobby and others, notably his best friend, Mouse (Ian Hart), and Seamus (Jason Barry), his cousin from Dublin, and to take us into their everyday lives, which are consumed with hanging out, mainly in neighborhood bars.

The cocaine they take on top of large quantities of liquor will prove to be the factor that unravels their lives. When yet another O'Grady cousin, Ted (Billy Crudup), fresh out of prison and high as a kite, starts talking loudly and loosely in a crowded pub, the local crime boss Jackie (Colm Meaney) has him gunned down on the spot.

(It doesn't help that Bobby is having an affair with Jackie's girl Katy [Famke Janssen]; the irony is that all these guys are so into seemingly full-time male bonding that neither Bobby nor Jackie has much time for her. Theirs is clearly a society in which women are good for one thing.)

In any event, the code of silence that gripped Charlestown, causing three out of four murders to go unsolved until recent years, kicks in immediately. But a local veteran cop (Martin Sheen), Irish for sure but from "across the bridge," is the kind of man who never gives up.

"Monument Ave." thus centers on Bobby, a man too smart not to see his entire way of life threatening to disintegrate but who may not be strong enough to resist the undertow. Demme and Armstrong depict with mounting tension--and looming dread--a group of criminals so closely tied to each other by either kinship or friendship or both, and so imprisoned by codes of behavior, that they can't handle the inevitability of change to the point of self-destruction. Careening around in a taxi belonging to a gang member, they spot a black man walking on "their" turf in the dead of night. Bobby goes berserk--or does he?--threatening a terrorist attack on the stranger. Is he driven to show up the cowardice of the worst bigot among his pals? Or is he in danger of displacing the rage of his own frustrations? Probably both.

You cannot watch "Monument Ave." without thinking of "Mean Streets." The filmmakers surely know this, and they respond to the challenge of inevitable comparisons with the Scorsese classic by generating a shattering raw power of their own through Demme's superb direction of a large ensemble cast, through cameraman Adam Kimmel's shadowy images shot in authentic locales, and through Armstrong's script, which steadily evokes an ever-mounting sense of inevitable tragedy.

In a screen crowded with impeccable portrayals, Leary's Bobby emerges as a dominating presence, haunting--and haunted by--an awareness the others lack. With "Monument Ave.," Leary fulfills the promise he's been revealing in bits and pieces all along in either smaller or less demanding roles.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: strong language, drug-taking, violence.

'Monument Ave.'

Denis Leary: Billy O'Grady

Billy Crudup: Teddy

Famke Janssen: Katy

Martin Sheen: Hanlon

A Lions Gate Films release in association with Filmline International, Phoenician Films, Clinica Estetica and Tribeca Independent Films of a Spanky Pictures production. Director-executive producer Ted Demme. Producers Joel Stillerman, Ted Demme, Jim Serpico, Nicolas Clermont, Elie Samaha. Screenplay by Mike Armstrong. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel. Editor Jeffrey Wolf. Costumes Deborah Newhall. Music supervisor Amanda Scheer-Demme. Production designer Ruth Ammon. Set decorator Jacqueline Jacobson. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


* Exclusively at the Beverly Center Cineplex, Beverly Boulevard at La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 777-FILM (No. 172), and the Town Center 4, Bristol Street at Anton Boulevard, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184 or (714) 777-FILM (No. 086).

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