Ted Demme, before cutting his filmography and life tragically short, had come into his own as a filmmaker to watch. He began on MTV, directing fast, funny commercials featuring some guy ranting about an all-Cindy-Crawford channel. That guy, of course, turned out to be Denis Leary, and the two went on to collaborate on Leary’s two cable specials, as well as Who’s the Man (wherein Leary had a small role), the much-loved black comedy The Ref, and finally Monument Ave. It could’ve turned out to be a regular De Niro-Scorsese director-star combo: Leary might work for other directors and cash his checks, but only Ted Demme really brought out the best in him.
Monument Ave has been unfairly compared to Mean Streets, Scorsese’s masterpiece about young guys on the margins of urban crime. It’s true that some recent wannabes, like Amongst Friends and even Michael Corrente’s impressive Federal Hill, were a little too close for comfort to the story of Charlie and Johnny Boy. But Monument Ave has its own flavor. Demme had a distinctive glum style — even his Beautiful Girls had an overcast of despair and regret — and his sensibility dovetailed perfectly with that of Leary, whose album No Cure for Cancer includes a rousing dirge called “Traditional Irish Folk Song”: They come over here and they take all our land/They chop off our heads and they boil them in oil/Our children are leaving and we have no heads/We drink and we sing and we drink and we die.
That could almost be the theme song for Monument Ave, which is dipped in a deep Boston-Irish fatalism: We’ve always been here, we’ll be here till the day we die, let’s get loaded and beat someone up. Or get shot. Leary plays Bobby O’Grady, a low-level car thief whose life consists of stealing, drinking, drugs, and hockey. His pals, like the aptly named Mouse Murphy (Ian Hart) or Seamus (Jason Barry), are just as trapped as he is; he has a little more on the ball brain-wise, though he won’t if he keeps doing speedballs. Demme and scripter Mike Armstrong (a Leary buddy who co-wrote the unfairly maligned confection Two If By Sea) view these deluded losers with the sad compassion of gods who see where these guys are headed but can’t do anything to stop them.
There isn’t much of a plot (there wasn’t much of a plot in Mean Streets, either, come to think of it). The local gangster bigwig, Jackie (Colm Meaney), rules with a veneer of benevolence hiding his ruthlessness: Anyone who snitches about mob activity, or even appears to be a rat, turns up dead. There’s a nice scene suffused with dread when a rabbity kid just out of jail talks about how the feds came to see him. He bends over backwards insisting that he didn’t tell them anything, and all the while Bobby sits there and listens sadly, mentally saying goodbye to the kid, because the hearty Jackie is also at the table, telling the kid not to worry.
The performances are uniformly fine, with nary a fake Cliff Clavin accent to be heard, though one actor seems out of place — Martin Sheen as the grim, walrus-mustached detective who keeps hounding Bobby about the increasing body count among his buddies. As a friend of mine pointed out, you look at Sheen at this point and all you think is Spawn; every time he shows up, he takes you out of the movie. Everyone else — including Famke Janssen and Jeanne Tripplehorn as the film’s token estrogen — is on the nose; Ian Hart’s Mouse has the film’s funniest moment — a comically anti-climactic break-in — and Leary shows his dramatic stuff, particularly when Bobby pays his final respects to a fallen friend. Another movie might have forced Bobby into an Oscar-bait speech; Leary’s choked silence speaks volumes. Words don’t mean anything; dead is dead, and life for Bobby and his crew isn’t much different. Monument Ave isn’t without humor, but it gives off a winter-in-Boston chill that you take with you in your bones.