An introductory scene, made in s style similar to an old educational movie, introduces us to Staten Island, the forgotten borough of New York City, a part of the metropolis that pales in comparison to The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and especially the one it is geographically closest to, Manhattan. Yet, as the introduction tells us, for some reason Staten Island is a popular place for the Mafia. Maybe it's the more spacious living conditions, the more relaxed atmosphere or, as the film points out, the forests and swamps that make the perfect dumping ground for dead bodies which attracts mobsters, but regardless, this is, if the film is to be believed, fact.
With that in mind, the film introduces us to Parmetto 'Parmie' Tarzo (Vincent D'Onofrio), a small time mob boss with big plans. He's bound and determined to start a mob war and take over the island, something that his cohorts think is more than a little overly ambitious. When he's betrayed, it changes his outlook on life. He still loves his mother dearly, but ignores her pleas to not be such an attention whore. Before you know it, Parmie's literally up in a tree, having given up on his hopes to win the world's record for holding his breath underwater in favor of saving a forest.
Sully (Ethan Hawke) is a septic tank engineer who literally makes his living sucking shit out of the ground with a hose. He and his pretty red haired wife are expecting, and when he hears of an experimental medical procedure that can genetically alter an embryo and result in a smarter, stronger and healthier child he goes to a rather unintelligent extreme to make sure his baby to be doesn't wind up 'stupid' like his old man.
Then there's Jasper (Seymour Cassel), a deaf-mute who works at a deli and knows both Parmie and Sully better than either one of them realizes. When he comes into a sizeable amount of money and realizes he doesn't really have much of a use for it, he too decides to do something to change his life. All of this happens in the small borough of Staten Island, which gazes longingly and almost enviously towards the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.
DeMonaco's film moves at approximately the same pace as the part of New York City in which it was shot - slightly slower than the surrounding area, but hardly lethargic. The film jumps around in its time frame, starting around the middle of the story and then moving ahead before moving back. This can make it a chore for the attention deficient crowd to follow but it's not all that complex, really. Once the major plot points and characters are established you can pretty much figure out where it's all going, even if you don't necessarily know how it's going to get there. The cinematography is nice, making parts of Staten Island look slightly more interesting than many of them actually are, and the score suits the film quite nicely.
The most impressive aspect of this production, co-produced by none other than Luc Besson, is the three main performances. D'Onofrio is excellent as Parmie, a quirky mobster whose relationship with his mother is simultaneously touching and creepy. He not only looks the party, sporting big 'George Romero style' glasses that contrast with his fancy suits, but he acts it as well. When he climbs a tree, you're not really surprised. Ethan Hawke isn't quite as good here as D'Onofrio is but only by a slight margin. He's completely convincing in the role of the dim witted but somewhat well meaning septic tank cleaner, and you can absolutely believe he loves his wife and wants the best for their baby - even if he's a completely bonehead. The real scene stealer, however, is Seymour Cassel who says more here with facial expressions and body language and without uttering a single word than anyone else in the cast.
All in all, while it might not be a new classic of the crime drama genre, it's a pretty entertaining effort on the part of all involved. It's a little bit different than your typical mob movie, and for that it deserves some applause, but on top of that it pulls off what it tries to accomplish with a fair bit of success. It's funny, it's interesting, and it's well made.
The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer isn't bad on this DVD. Colors look maybe a bit over saturated in some scenes but you can't help but think that this was done intentionally. Skin tones look good, black levels are reasonably strong. There is a bit of shimmer here and there but no noticeable edge enhancement or any mpeg compression artifacts to complain about. Detail looks about average and the image is clean enough without any problems in regards to print damage, dirt or debris worth noting.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track is pretty good, with some nice channel separation present during the sporadic action scenes. Dialogue is well balanced and there are no problems to note with hiss or distortion. Bass response isn't all that strong but you'll feel the low end during the scene where Parmie drives off the bridge and any time a gun goes off. The score is spread out nicely and has a certain sort of bounce to it. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Writer-director James DeMonaco is joined by stars Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio. This is a pretty decent track, particularly if you're fans of either actor, as it does a good job of explaining how and why this project came along, how they each came on board to work with DeMonaco on it, and of course, what it was like shooting out on location on Staten Island.
Aside from that, there's a very brief two minute featurette in which D'Onofrio discusses Staten Island and its place among the other four boroughs of New York City, two and a half minutes of unimportant deleted scenes, menus and chapter selection.
An interesting and darkly humorous mob movie, Staten Island features some good performances and interesting ideas. It's not a perfect film, but it gets enough right and it's entertaining enough that it's worth a look, if only for D'Onofrio's amusing performance. The DVD release looks and sounds alright and while it's not a super loaded special edition, the commentary is a nice extra. Consider this one a very solid rental for the curious, recommended for those with an interest in quirky crime dramedies.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.