Razor Sharp Monument Ave. On DVD

Denis Leary, Billy Crudup, Ian Hart, Jason Barry, Famke Janssen, Colm Meaney, Martin Sheen, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Noah Emmerich, John Diehl. Directed by Ted Demme. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (widescreen). Dolby Digital 5.1. 94 minutes. 1998. Miramax 17093. R. $24.98.

Denis Leary, the acerbic standup comic and motor-oil pitchman with the in-your-face attitude, firmly establishes himself as a full-fledged film actor in Monument Ave., a sharply observed and vividly evocative drama about low life and sudden death on the mean streets of Charlestown, a working-class Irish-American neighborhood of Boston. Until now, Leary has fared better as a supporting player (Wag the Dog, Suicide Kings) than as a top-billed star (The Ref, Two If By Sea). But Monument Ave. offers positive proof that he's more than capable of carrying a first-rate movie on his own shoulders.

Seizing a role he was born to play, Leary gives a vigorously complex and meticulously nuanced performance as Bobby O'Grady, a 33-year-old "townie" whose fierce ethnic pride and deep-rooted loyalty inextricably bind him to his insular community. Bobby is just smart enough to know he's going nowhere fast. Unfortunately, he has been a petty criminal for far too long to transcend where he's from and what's expected of him.

Bobby and his friends take a dim view of the yuppies who are claiming and restoring old houses in the streets surrounding Charlestown. (The movie is set in the mid-1980s, though this isn't immediately clear.) But the townies delight in knowing that the interlopers have newer and better things to steal. In a place where the only alternative to crime is a dead-end job at the local wire factory—which, by the way, doesn't appear to be thriving—fresh prey is always welcome. Easy money means quick access to the drugs and booze that provide a brief escape from lives of noisy desperation.

Two scenes of chemically enhanced carousing—one profanely funny, the other intensely terrifying—illuminate different facets of Bobby's personality. Early on, Bobby and some buddies are drinking beer and sniffing cocaine in Bobby's living room when their long and winding conversation turns to Hollywood babes and their physical attributes. After someone completes a graphically detailed account of what he'd do with Michelle Pfeiffer or Jamie Lee Curtis under the right circumstances, Bobby abruptly ends the wishdreaming by bluntly announcing that none of the women they're talking about would ever, even in a million years, have anything to do with any of them. A friend disagrees, "Hey, you never know." But Bobby demurs: He does know.

Later, during a late-night, high-speed ramble in a friend's taxi, Bobby and his cohorts spot a young black man who has dared to stroll onto their turf. At Bobby's insistence, the townies drag the poor guy into the taxi, where he is verbally and physically abused. Bobby seems especially eager to kill the "outsider," but the audience isn't sure. Have displaced rage and self-loathing—mixed with amphetamines—pushed him over the edge? Or is Bobby simply trying to humiliate a racist acquaintance who is all talk and no action? Either way, the scene is powerfully unsettling as it briefly unleashes the furies that seethe inside Bobby.

Like most of his more short-sighted buddies, Bobby is an overgrown adolescent who, for all his tough-guy posturing, still lives at home with his mom. Also like his buddies, he never looks beyond the sensations of the moment—doing drugs or playing hockey with friends, savoring a dangerous liaison with the girlfriend (Famke Janssen) of the local crime boss (Colm Meaney), putting the pedal to the metal in a stolen car. Adhering to the neighborhood code of silence, Bobby pleads ignorance when a hard-boiled cop (Martin Sheen) inquires about a rubout in a Charlestown watering hole. (Everyone present at the time of the shooting claims to have been in the bathroom when the shots were fired.) But when his Irish-born cousin is suspected of being an informer, Bobby must consider breaking the unwritten rules that have long circumscribed his life.

Working from a pungently persuasive script by Mike Armstrong, director Ted Demme (who also directed Leary in The Ref) infuses Monument Ave. with a claustrophobic air of mounting desperation. Despite a few melodramatic flourishes, the movie earns major points for honesty: It never makes excuses for its characters, never romanticizes their aimless lives and self-regarding schemes. Even Bobby, the anti-hero of the piece, ultimately emerges as a lost cause. As Leary plays him, he's simply too stuck in his ways to find a way out, and too stubborn to admit to anyone—even himself—that maybe he should look a little harder.

The razor-sharp DVD transfer preserves and enhances the invaluable contribution of cinematographer Adam Kimmel, who artfully underscores subtle variegations of emotional tone throughout Monument Ave. And thanks to the crisp Dolby soundtrack, Amanda Scheer-Demme's ineffably melancholy musical score is even more affecting now than it was during the movie's criminally brief theatrical run.