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Film review: Gritty 'Saints' lacks originality

Published: Friday, Nov. 10 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Robert Downey Jr. stars in "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints."

Walter Thomson, First Look Pictures

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A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS — ** 1/2 — Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Channing Tatum; rated R (profanity, violence, vulgarity, drugs, racial epithets, brief sex, brief partial nudity).

Martin Scorsese made his ode to Little Italy, "Mean Streets," back in 1973, which seems like an long time ago. But it hasn't been so long that it's acceptable for another film to cop its vibe, which is what "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" has done.

This gritty, coming-of-age drama was allegedly based on screenwriter/director Dito Montiel's real-life experiences growing up in Astoria, N.Y., during the 1980s. However, it feels a lot like — perhaps too much like — Scorsese's film, which also had quasi-religious overtones.

As a result of feeling so derivative, "Saints" is less effective than it might otherwise have been.

Sadly, that takes something away from some pretty solid performances, such as Robert Downey Jr. as Montiel, who serves as the narrator. Flashback sequences show how the young Montiel (played by Shia LaBeouf) got into trouble because of the company he kept. Yet he was also convinced that he was able to escape serious harm due to the blessings of various saints.

Montiel has made a few questionable casting decisions, especially having Eric Roberts play an older version of Channing Tatum's character. And at one point, he even buries Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest — who play Montiel's parents — under unconvincing old-age makeup.

Still, LaBeouf ("Holes," "The Greatest Game Ever Played") is a likable presence, and Tatum shows a menacing edginess that his role in this year's "Step Up" certainly didn't reveal.

The material doesn't really give the always terrific Downey much to do, however.

"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" is rated R for strong sexual language (profanity and vulgar slang terms), strong violence (various beatings), drug content (marijuana use and references), use of racial epithets and ethnic slurs, a brief sex scene and other sexual contact, and brief, partial female nudity. Running time: 99 minutes.


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