Rated R –language

This all-star drama, the most powerful movie among the fall releases, pits the spiritual lives of four Catholic altar boys in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen district in the mid-1960's against the carnal temptations and snares of their every day lives.

When they were altar boys (©, Warner Bros.) "This is my story and that of the only three friends in my life who truly mattered," an opening declaration by the story's original author, Lorenzo Carcaterra, says, though at least one Catholic publication tried to verify the events depicted and concluded that the story is fiction.. "Two of them were killers who never made it past the age of 30. The other is a nonpracticing attorney living with the pain of the past, too afraid to let it go, never confronting its horror. I'm the only one who can speak for them and the children we were."

Lorenzo tells their stories in two time frames-depicting them as boys in the '60's and as men more than a decade later. He contrasts their lives in the church with their friend and priest Fr. Bobby (Robert DeNiro), with their lives on the streets. The culture of the 1960's when men often could abuse their wives without fear of being divorced is also contrasted with the later social sanctions that encourage women to leave abusive unions.

The boys' lives take a fatal downturn when a street prank turns into a major crime and they are all sentenced to an upstate reformatory for terms ranging from nine to 18 months. There they are brutalized, and sexually assaulted, by the guards under the leadership of Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), a punishment far exceeding their crime that sets the course of their lives thereafter.

After returning to their middle-westside Manhattan neighborhood the two older boys, Lorenzo the eventual author and Michael the future attorney, shamed by their experience, turn into virtual loners while the younger pair, Tommy and John, seeing themselves as victims of society, team up to take out vengeance on society. When, as young adults some years leater they run into Nokes having dinner in a neighborhood bar, they remind him of his crimes against them and execute him on the spot in full view of the bartender and other diners.

Their old friend Michael (played as an adult by Brad Pitt) is the district attorney chosen to handle their prosecution. But seeing the turn of events as an opportunity to get justice for what happened in their youth, he conspires with Lorenzo (Jason Patric) and Fr. Bobby to turn the murder trial into a trial of the Wilkinson Home for Boys. In the process, they mean to not only free Tommy and John, but get legal and sometimes less than legal vengeance against the reformatory's other uncharged criminal conspirators in child abuse in the bargain.

Winning their case depends on persuading Fr. Bobby to provide a false alibi for Tommy and John, at which point the plot begins to resemble that of a much lighter 1992 film, Fried Green Tomatoes, in which a minister similarly perjured himself (though whether knowingly or under delusion that film never makes clear) to free a couple of women on trial on similar charges.

Directed and written for the screen by Barry Levinson (creator of TV's Homicide: Life on the Streets and director of the films Diner, Bugsy and Rain Man), this film is full of delightful plot complications and contrasts, with award-worthy performances by all five of its principal actors: Patric, Pitt, Bacon, DeNiro, and Dustin Hoffman who portrays a washed-up alcoholic attorney chosen by "the neighborhood" to defend Tommy and John, just because he can be expected to blow their defense and allow Michael's conspiracy to get them off.

Photo by the film's distributor

1997, Jon Kennedy