By Michael Christina
Long before Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner were knocking off Fenway Park in The Town there was another flick that documented what it’s like growing up in the infamous Boston borough of Charlestown. And odds are you’ve probably never seen it.
Monument Ave. (1998) chronicles a group of Irish hoodlums torn between breaking their loyalty to the neighborhood’s code of silence while dealing with a ruthless crime boss who has no remorse for taking any of them out when he feels need be. And just so you know, I hate the word hoodlum. It’s just a nicer way of saying criminal.
Directed by the late, great Ted Demme (Blow, The Ref) and starring Worcester native and early 90s MTV tough guy Denis Leary, the film provides a genuine look into the inner workings of a world that few ever get to see.
Full disclosure, I had never seen this movie before until a few weeks ago. I was looking to watch a few Boston films on Netflix and it was pretty much one of the only ones that looked decent and was available for streaming. Honestly, try watching 15 minutes of The Proposition without wanting to break your TV.
Now I went into it with high hopes solely based off the fact that Ted Demme was behind the camera and Blow was one of my favorite movies growing up. But I have to say, it completely exceeded my expectations and then some.
First of all, the cast is outstanding. Other than the horrendous sideburns, Denis Leary provides a great performance as Bobby O’Grady, a small time car thief with a just a wee bit of a gambling problem. The legendary Martin Sheen perfects one of his favorite roles apparently of being a Boston cop long before The Departed in Monument Ave. Billy Crudup makes a small but memorable appearance as O’Grady’s junk tank cousin Teddy. Even Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) gets in on the act giving Blake Lively a run for her money in the category for trashiest Townie chick in a film. And then last, but certainly not least, Colm Meaney plays Jackie O’Hara (apparently there is an unwritten rule that at least one Jackie has to be in every Irish Boston gangster movie), the ruthless criminal boss alluded to earlier. Meaney is a personal favorite of mine because we share the same birthday and he was also in Con Air, which I consider to be a masterpiece.
Oh, and just as in most every other project Denis Leary has ever been a part of Lenny Clarke is not far behind. And just in case you were wondering, it’s fat Lenny Clarke. I mean really fat Lenny Clarke. It’s to the point where the people from NESN (New England Sports Network) would watch the movie now and think “Thank God we never had to fit him into the announcer’s booth during a Red Sox game when he was that big.” Between Don Orsillo’s giant head and Lenny’s unearthly body mass back then, the entire press box at Fenway would’ve collapsed. But I digress, Lenny has lost a ton of weight and we are all very happy for him and blah, blah, blah…now back to the movie.
Demme’s direction of the film is not overdone or overdramatic in any way. He lets the characters be the main focal point throughout the entire movie, which provides for a more fufilling and authentic experience. One scene in particular encapsulates an all-night coke binge within a seven minute sequence that is absolutely priceless. It’s almost as if Leary and Demme had some personal experience during their lifetimes with that sort of thing (Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge). A street hockey game between the members of Jackie’s crew also provides one of those you’ve had to live here to understand moments, which is quite frankly awesome.
The film certainly does not hold any punches, which I truly do appreciate. In terms of race relations, Charlestown’s history is spotty at best and Monument Ave. does not try and sugarcoat it. Now I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think that I’m excited that blatant racism is a part of this film. I just believe there is a certain reality that Bostonians unfortunately still know and I appreciate when anyone presents something for truly being what it is. For me, holding back on things of this nature does no one any good. Coming out in the open and presenting a particular mindset can be the first step in solving an issue, particularly one that still somewhat plagues the image of the entire city of Boston. And in the case of Monument Ave, it makes for for one of its most powerful scenes.
This movie overall provides a realistic view of a crew of friends living and surviving together in one of the roughest sections of the city. And a feeling of family shines through in the end to make for a very sort of redeeming experience. Weird to say, but it somehow all works.
So for those of you looking to check out a good Boston film that you may have never seen before, I suggest you check out Monument Ave. It’s available on Netflix, and conveniently the entire movie is also on YouTube. And don’t worry, its high quality streaming. None of that grainy, low quality stuff. Now let’s just hope it doesn’t get ripped down in a few days.