ICYMI: Monument Ave. (1998)
I don’t know why people are so surprised when established comedic actors or stand-up comedians show their range in dramatic roles. As far as comedic actors, be it Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton, or Robin Williams, a good actor is just a good actor. As far as stand-up comedians, that’s a different but understandable story. Successful stand-up comedians A) understand rhythm and timing B) read a room and connect with audience members C) make observations based on studying human nature and culture and D) are gifted storytellers often portraying the everyday people that they interact with.
The career of Denis Leary has seen him transform from edgy stand-up comedian (No Cure For Cancer, Lock N’ Load) to comedic supporting player (Demolition Man, Wag the Dog) to popular voice actor (Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and the Ice Age series) to established dramatic player. His dramatic work has been on display in such varied films as The Sandlot, Wide Awake, and True Crime but most notably in his Emmy-nominated work as NYPD firefighter Tommy Gavin on FX’s long-running Rescue Me. While some may think that Leary’s been doing the same “angry white guy” shtick for over twenty-five years, I say it may have been the genesis of his work but each performance has differing shades of heart, humor, and humanity.
One of his best performances was featured in the 1998 underrated crime drama Monument Ave. From director Ted Demme comes a gritty, realistic look at life in the streets of South Boston. Leary may be seen as an odd choice for the lead character of Bobby, a lifelong hooligan and wannabe gangster, but his history with Demme probably shaped that casting. Demme got his start directing Denis Leary’s MTV ads in the earlier 90’s and moved on to directing both of his stand-up comedy specials followed by Who’s The Man and The Ref (both featuring Leary), as well as 1996’s Beautiful Girls and 1999’s Life. Sadly, Ted Demme (cousin of fellow filmmaker Jonathan Demme) passed away in 2002 so we will never know what future collaborations were in store.
As for Monument Ave., we have a sleek and observant look at a small area just behind the big city lights of Boston where crime is an accepted way of life. It’s a town populated by man-children who still live at home with their parents and usually don’t wake up until 2 PM. It’s the stereotypical neighborhood where everybody knows everybody and when someone is getting killed at the local bar, you’d better tell the cops you were in the bathroom when it happened along with the other twenty non-witnesses.
Denis Leary’s Bobby is the unofficial lieutenant to Jackie (a sinister Colm Meaney), the kind of self-important crime boss that casually orders hits and then passes out cash at the subsequent funerals. There’s also Katy (Famke Janssen), who is Jackie’s arm candy but sees Bobby on the down low. There’s no sense that Bobby actually loves her but that it’s just an extension of his self-destructive behavior which includes drinking, drugs and placing bad bets while blacked out. There aren’t too many surprises in this Mean Streets-lite, especially when Bobby’s visiting cousin makes the mistake of being seen in public with the local detective (a wry Martin Sheen), but one scene in particular stands out.
One of Bobby’s friends starts mouthing racist vitriol about how blacks are ruining the neighborhood. Bobby gets tired of hearing his friend’s tough talk and puts him to a test. While out for a drive with his crew, Bobby spots a black man walking the streets. Bobby asks for a gun, has the car pulled over and kidnaps the unsuspecting pedestrian. Bobby then goads his friend to teach the black man a lesson. Not surprisingly, the friend relents and is shown to be a coward when it comes to backing up his hatred. Bobby drops the frightened black man off and states, “There's a subway stop a block from here. Ask around at school to see where it's safe to go.”
Bobby then tears into his friend for being gutless and we realize that Bobby never meant to hurt the unsuspecting victim. Bobby sees himself as the good guy, even though we see his lesson was truly sick. This scene stuck with me when I first saw the film in 1999. This scene is even more relevant in today’s world of racial strife and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Monument Ave. is a good reminder of what a powerful actor Denis Leary can be. His performance is surprisingly low-key, with none of the manic nature of his stand-up. His face speaks volumes, especially in the quieter scenes. Leary obviously knows this world, having grown up in Boston, and gives us a character colored with every shade of grey. Through Bobby’s eyes we learn that the only thing harder than living on Monument Ave. is trying to leave it.