While credible in its portrayal of small-time crime among Irish lowlifes in the Charlestown section of Boston, "Snitch" is irredeemably stuck in the boys-will-be-boys genre that has become more than a bit shopworn since "Mean Streets" made it fashionable more than 25 years ago.

While credible in its portrayal of small-time crime among Irish lowlifes in the Charlestown section of Boston, “Snitch” is irredeemably stuck in the boys-will-be-boys genre that has become more than a bit shopworn since “Mean Streets” made it fashionable more than 25 years ago. Well acted and ultimately involving despite the obnoxiously immature, all-too-familiar shenanigans of the reckless, boozing, violence-prone characters, this study of the difficulty of breaking traditional cycles of criminal activity reps a fair bet for interested indie distribs and specialized audiences.

Strictly on its own terms, this socially deterministic yarn fashioned by screenwriter Mike Armstrong and director Ted Demme deals forthrightly and constructively with the problem of habitual crime-gang behavior patterns and the difficulty of changing them. The only problem is that the great majority of screen time is devoted to the kind of loutish, drunken, small-minded, confrontational macho posturing that, in assorted ethnic stripes, has been paraded across the screen innumerable times in recent years. Like the men on hand here, it’s all getting a little old.

Focus this time out is on Bobby O’Grady (Denis Leary), a thirtysomething on the outside but an adolescent on the inside who, after deliberately setting off all the car alarms on a street just for fun, spends the rest of a coked-up evening with his buddies assessing the breasts of well-known actresses and stop-starting videotapes to spot them.

Bobby is one of the senior members of a gang run by Jackie O’Hara (Colm Meaney), a big bully of the old school who demands absolute, unquestioning loyalty. Bobby’s specialty is car theft, but the jobs are infrequent and he spends most of his time drinking, hanging out with the boys and getting into minor mischief that looks pretty silly coming from a guy his age.

Bobby is nominally in charge of, and ought to be serving as a role model for, his young cousin Seamus (Jason Barry), a well-raised lad just in from Dublin. More than the others, Seamus is shocked when one of their group, Teddy (Billy Crudup), is abruptly gunned down while sitting drinking with his friends. Obviously the work of Jackie, the bloody hit not only must be immediately accepted by the gang, but covered for; the evasive answer all the men give to investigator Hanolon (Martin Sheen) whenever there’s a crime in their vicinity is, “I was in the bathroom.”

Hypocritically, Jackie makes the rounds at Teddy’s wake, paying condolences to the grieving family, and so absolute is the code of silence that Bobby can’t even reveal to his own mother, or Teddy’s, that he witnessed the killing, much less who might have done it. Bobby takes it out on Jackie while playing street hockey, but also releases his anger by giving his girlfriend, Katy (Famke Janssen), a hard time and indulging in some ugly racist threats toward a black man he and the boys pick up and take for a scary ride one night.

Story’s final act delineates Bobby’s slow, dim moral awakening, which is finally triggered by the tragic, senseless murder of Seamus, who had recently expressed his desire to return to Ireland due to his disgust with his erstwhile countrymen. Much like some of his counterparts in Northern Ireland who have had to question whether to continue their tit-for-tat violence or make the brave leap necessary to put the past behind them, Bobby is faced with the decision of persisting with the age-old games of revenge and silence, or breaking the pattern in the hopes of giving the deserving survivors a new chance.

Pic has a good feel for the streets, barrooms, attitudes and speech of Charlestown’s lower-middle-class Irish-Americans; the portrait it paints is far from flattering, as the mentality and behavior of these men would not seem to have changed much since their clannish ways were established in the area more than 125 years ago. Their carrying-on is made to look particularly archaic when placed in the broader context of sophisticated, yuppified Boston, which it occasionally is.

Demme and Leary worked together before on “The Ref,” and they are clearly very much in synch with their intentions on this outing; Leary’s perf is convincing, doesn’t ask for sympathy and bluntly exposes his character’s pathetic short-sightedness. Other thesps fit neatly into the large ensemble.

Armstrong’s workmanlike screenplay might profitably have spent more time with Seamus, whose outsider status provides the largely unused opportunity to put the boys’ bad behavior in relief and would have made for some interesting and ironic Old World-New World comparisons on any number of sociopolitical/religious/historical levels. As it is, Seamus functions as hardly more than a plot device.

Script also comes up short in delineating Katy’s position vis-a-vis the key men in the story; at first she’s presented as Bobby’s main squeeze, but later it seems that she’s supposed to be Jackie’s girl, her relationship with Bobby possibly a secret. Women clearly occupy a secondary position in the world depicted, but that shouldn’t condemn them to cut-rate treatment in the storytelling.

Tech credits are pro.

Snitch

Crime drama -- Color

Production

A Filmline Intl./Phoenician Films/Clinica Estetico/Tribeca Independent Films presentation of a Spanky Pictures/Apostle production. Produced by Nicolas Clermont, Elie Samaha, Joel Stillerman, Ted Demme, Jim Serpico. Directed by Ted Demme. Screenplay, Mike Armstrong.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Astaltech color), Adam Kimmel; editor, Jeffrey Wolf; music supervisor, Amanda Scheer-Demme; production design, Ruth Ammon; casting, Avi Kaufman. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 20, 1998. Running time: 93 min.

With

Bobby O'Grady - Denis Leary Seamus - Jason Barry Teddy - Billy Crudup Digger Bruce - John Diehl Shang - Greg Dulli Red Doherty - Noah Emmerich Mouse Murphy - Ian Hart Katy O'Connor - Famke Janssen Jackie O'Hara - Colm Meaney Hanolon - Martin Sheen Annie - Jeanne Tripplehorn
Camera (Technicolor, Astaltech color), Adam Kimmel; editor, Jeffrey Wolf; music supervisor, Amanda Scheer-Demme; production design, Ruth Ammon; casting, Avi Kaufman. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 20, 1998. Running time: 93 min.

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