Irish-American Crime Movies: Monument Ave. (1998)

Mean Street Hockey: Colm Meaney and Denis Leary in "Monument Ave."

Mean Street Hockey: Colm Meaney and Denis Leary in “Monument Ave.”

Monument Ave. (1998)

Written by: Mike Armstrong
Directed by: Ted Demme
Starring: Denis Leary, Colm Meaney, Famke Janssen
Summary: A squalid look at petty criminals in Boston’s Charleston neighborhood featuring a typically unsympathetic lead performance from Denis Leary

Denis Leary first rose to prominence as a comic, with a stage persona that consisted of cigarette-fueled rants inspired by, if not actually stolen from, fellow comedian Bill Hicks. But Leary always had a second career as an actor, at first as a comic bit player, but increasingly as one of America’s primary representations of a certain kinds of wounded Irish-American manhood. He’s done this in a few ensemble television series, “The Job,” where he played a NYPD officer who was also a piece of human wreckage, and “Rescue Me,” where he played a FDNY fireman who was also a piece of human wreckage.

He’s very good at these roles; maybe a little too good. With his irritated eyes and his perpetual scowl, he rarely seems like someone you would want to spend much time with; his characters have a tendency to turn petty, mean, and vicious on a dime. There is a film in which he plays a mob enforcer, “Suicide Kings,” and there is a scene in it in which Leary beats a man with a toaster, and he’s totally believable as a man who might pick up a kitchen appliance and hospitalize you with it. He has the sort of persona that would ordinarily be relegated to supporting performances — and often is — because it is a strong, bitter spice. The amazing thing is that Leary has so often been able to carve out a career as a lead performer.

Sometimes, they steal cars for their local boss, played as a gregarious bully by Colm Meaney. Whatever they make they immediately blow, on alcohol and cocaine and, in Leary’s case, on bad bets.
“Monument Ave.,” which originally had a more classic crime film title, “Snitch,” has Leary at his least pleasant. The film is set in the same neighborhood of Boston where Ben Affleck’s “The Town” would be set a few years later: Charlestown. And the two films both address the town’s essential Irish clannishness, the sense that the delicate order of the place has been upset by the encroachment of gentrifying yuppies.

But “Monument Ave’s” Irish men are much more ragged than those of “The Town.” They’re mean, racist, drug-addled, often stupid, and directionless. Leary is at the center of a gang of these manchildren, all seemingly cousins, played by some extraordinary character actors, including Ian Hart and Billy Crudup. They’ve adopted a cousin from Dublin, and he’s a hanger on to their misdeeds, which are plentiful.

Sometimes, they steal cars for their local boss, played as a gregarious bully by Colm Meaney. Whatever they make they immediately blow, on alcohol and cocaine and, in Leary’s case, on bad bets. And once in a while, Meaney gets paranoid and shoots one of them; you get the sense that the reason this gang is so wretched is that Meaney has eliminated all the cousins who had intelligence or ambition. All but Leary, who can’t stand his life and acts out in little ways, such as playing rough with Meaney during a street hockey game. But if Leary is smart enough to be unhappy, he isn’t ambitious enough to do anything about it; he sometimes hints that he wants to just skip town, but then gets drunk and places a bet he can’t repay during a blackout.

Make no mistake, the film is about miserable people, and isn’t shy about making us watch their misery, and watch them misbehave toward others. The film has a scene in which Leary, coked out of his mind, kidnaps a black teenager and threatens to murder him, all because he’s irritated by the casual racism of one of his friends and, I don’t know, wants to show him what real racism looks like. As staged by director Ted Demme, the scene is agonizing, mostly focusing on the young man, seated in the backseat of a car with a gun pressed to his side, quietly sobbing. There’s no doubt that it is a hate crime we are witnessing, and it is being perpetrated by our heroes.

There’s no doubt that it is a hate crime we are witnessing, and it is being perpetrated by our heroes.
I both respect the scene for being unflinching and feel that it can’t help but undermine whatever sympathy we have for the characters, but, then, I’m not convinced we’re supposed to feel sympathy for them. A lot of crime films have smart, unhappy men as their leads, and we’re supposed to think they are better than their circumstances and root for them to be able to rise above them.  “The Town” certainly had that, in Ben Affleck’s character.

This film constantly seems to want to undermine that. Leary has a quick wit to him, but he never seems better than the story he’s in, and his occasional bleating about getting away seems more cowardly than aspirational. He’s as mean as any of them, he’s often casually homophobic, he’s not very good to the women in his life, and, come to think of it, he’s not very good to his male friends either. When his Dublin cousin complains that Leary has dragged him into a terrible world, Leary simply acts insulted, angrily complaining that the cousin wanted a job and Leary got him a job. He may not be Colm Meany, but he’s part of a machine that allows Meaney to thrive, even as it kills his own family.

It’s probably as honest a representation of crime as you’ll find onscreen, as something perpetrated by unpleasant misfits and losers, and I respect that the filmmakers didn’t shy away from the meanness, the squalidness, or the complicity of these men. But, my goodness, it’s a lot to ask us to spend an entire movie in their company.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.