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Under Hellgate Bridge
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 succeeds.
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 commentary.
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 also included.
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 [email protected]