THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Setting out to make a film that covers drugs, mobsters, a love triangle and
family conflict in 90 minutes sounds like a losing proposition, especially when
it's been done to death. Still, writer-director Michael Sergio manages to pull
it off in Under Hellgate Bridge.
Set in Astoria, Queens, right across the river from the gleaming skyscrapers
of midtown Manhattan, the film kicks off with the OD death of Jimmy under the titular bridge. The following scenes introduce the rest of the cast.
Ryan (Michael Rodrick) is Jimmy's eldest brother, who returns to Astoria after
being gone for a number of years (some of them spent in prison). Eddie (Brian
Vincent) is Jimmy's other brother, a mook who's never made it out of the neighborhood.
Carla (Jordan Bayne) is Ryan's former lover, now stuck in a far more sinister
relationship. And Vincent (Jonathan LaPaglia) is the local drug lord, a mid-level
mobster with a real mean streak.
The opening scenes don't really introduce anything new and set the film up
as a typical hood flick with faux-Shakespearean overtones (the brothers, the
love triangle between Ryan, Vincent and Carla) but as the film progresses it
delves deeper into the psyches of the characters. Brian Vincent imbues Eddie
with a sad, self-effacing quality; a kid who knows he'll never do good. Bayne
is truly tortured and not in a regular way. Her marriage to Vincent leaves her
bitter and angry, something that Ryan's return obviously provokes further. Rodrick
plays Ryan quietly and subtly. His prodigal son appears to be the best of the
lot at times and the worst at others. LaPaglia makes a great villain with his
chiseled features and imposing presence. He takes his Vincent character as far
as he can without appearing cartoonish. This way he can be cruel and perverted
but still betray the insecurity at the man's heart. The scene where he demonstrates
his control over Carla to Ryan is a twisted scenario that's not likely to be
forgotten any time soon but it also shows the character's need to prove his
power to himself as well.
If the film has a flaw it's in using some recognizable mob actors in thankless,
minor roles. The Sopranos' excellent Domenic Chianese appears as a priest
who doles out general advice to Ryan. Vincent Pastore (the ill-fated Big Pussy
from The Sopranos) plays Vincent's right-hand man but is given nothing
to do (well, he does receive a blow job at one point). Frank Vincent (Raging
Bull, Goodfellas) has a small role as the head mobster. These fine
actors do what they can with the material but there isn't much for them. The
rest of the cast, however, ably picks up the slack.
Like the characters, Sergio's filmmaking is sometimes impressively unpredictable.
The scene I mentioned earlier, where Vincent proves his power over Carla to
Ryan, is an unhinged and unsettling set-piece. LaPaglia's performance crackles
with danger and moments like those use his energy to full effect. A shootout
late in the film also progresses in an unusual manner. Without revealing Sergio's
methods, it manages to avoid showdown cliches with some cinematic restraint
and patience. That's Sergio's M.O. He doesn't come at anything in the film from
the most expected route. From the relationship between the brothers to the attitude
of Frank Vincent's mob boss, Sergio tries to inject originality and usually
Leland Krane's often beautiful cinematography is well-handled in this anamorphic
transfer. Even though the film clearly had a low budget, the lighting and camera
work is sophisticated and helps paint a complex portrait of the dreary world
of the characters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is fine. It has a nice, clean sound and the music
and voices balance out. English subtitles are available.
The disc features an informative commentary track from director Sergio. He's
eloquent and intelligent and has a lot to say about the film's setting and
his fine cast as well as the four year process that he undertook to make Hellgate
Bridge. An accomplished actor, musician and commercial director, he's not
at all the fresh-from-film-school whiz kid that usually tries to ape Tarantino
with low-level mob flicks. His experience shows in his filmmaking and in his
The disc also includes video segments from some of the festivals where the
film played as well as the film's New York premiere. Sergio narrates some of
the clips. Interviews with some cast and crew members as well as trailers are
Under Hellgate Bridge overcomes its genre and its dreary title to paint
an emotional and personal portrait of some desperate people. Fans of independent
film or serious films about regular joes should check it out.
Email Gil Jawetz at firstname.lastname@example.org