Across the river from Boston's tony Beacon Hill--and a world away from the salt-of-the-earth Southie of Good Will Hunting--lies the neighborhood of Charlestown, a mostly Irish, working-class enclave where, according to Monument Ave, you definitely don't want to park your car. That's because a gangster called Jackie O (Colm Meaney, sounding more Irish than Irish-American) runs a crew of car thieves. Two of them, Bobby O'Grady (Denis Leary) and Mouse (the superb Ian Hart) are trusted members of this criminal underworld, but their boyhood pal (Billy Crudup, in a smashing cameo) is seen as a threat. Released early from prison, he's suspected of being a rat, and he soon pays the price for violating the local code of silence.
Though Bobby and his friends toy with the idea of vengeance, they strike out with predictable shortsightedness against easier targets: mothers, girlfriends, yuppie homesteaders, and a black college student who makes the mistake of walking home alone through Charlestown. Under Ted Demme's accomplished direction, the film unfolds with a kind of ruthless simplicity, observing, rather than stating, the neighborhood's intricate social connections. Leary is a quiet, mesmerizing dramatic actor, and another strong performance comes from Famke Janssen, a Dutch émigré who would be one of the most glamorous women in film if she were not so determined to forge a career as a gritty character actress. As Bobby's sometime lover, and Jackie O's mistress, she may seem a little too bright and beautiful to be marooned in this sorry world, but like Leary, she conveys the defeat and fear behind her tough facade, and like him, she is utterly believable.
Honor among thieves is also the focus of Hit Me, an uneven adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel A Swell- Looking Babe, in which a bellhop (Elias Koteas) and a suicidal prostitute (Laure Marsac) become embroiled in a conspiracy to rob a high-stakes poker game. For a draggy hour or so, this first film by director Steven Shainberg is nearly overwhelmed by neo-noir gloom: the setting is the creepiest, kitschiest flophouse ever seen on celluloid, and the idea that the owner hopes to upgrade his establishment's rating--from two stars to three--is ludicrous. (He might as well hang a sign out front that says, "Management has steam-cleaned ALL bloodstained carpeting!") But as the scam gets more complicated, and more deadly, Hit Me develops an unexpected emotional force. The bellhop, you see, has fallen in love, and as played by Koteas (who looks and acts like a young Robert De Niro), passion becomes the most alluring, confusing gamble of all.
By contrast, the world of Simon Geist, mastermind of a cutting-edge_-but bogus--publication called The Next Big Thing, is defined by a vicious clarity. His mission, bankrolled by a neurotic, rich admirer, is to set up interviews with up-and-coming actors, comics, and musicians, and then harangue them about their absurd, derivative artistic pretensions. In less capable hands, The Last Big Thing could have become as smug as its bizarre, foghorn-voiced hero, but star, director, and writer Dan Zukovic--who looks like a cross between Bruce Campbell of the Evil Dead movies and Beaker from The Muppet Show--has more on his mind than roasting the celebrity industry. Simon would be appalled by the idea, but this furiously original movie could become the Repo Man of the '90s.
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