A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a quietly powerful film that doesn't break any new limits but does offer some fine performances from some up-and-coming stars and a quietly sad story set in Queens.
Robert Downey, Jr. is the headlining star of the movie, but as most of the movie is told in long flashback sequences from his childhood, the real screen time goes to Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf, perhaps best known now for Bobby, doesn't necessarily have the standard Hollywood look, but he is a fine actor who has a good career ahead of him. While he has already appeared in a few bombs like Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, his largest roles are coming to him in the smaller, more serious films - a good career move, if I must say so. Both he and Downey Jr. share the same character, and as good as Downey is, LaBeouf is much more interesting to watch.
The two men play Dito, who grows up in Astoria, Queens at a time when there is violence and racial divisions everywhere, and very few rules. He and his close friends, including the violent Antonio (Channing Tatum, of Step Up), go about their business with little disregard for those around them, except for Dito's parents. While Antonio seems to be spiraling out of control, Dito is showing signs that he is growing up and ready to move on with his life. Many years later, Dito returns as a grown man to find that most of his friends never escaped the hell he used to live in, and that his father (Chazz Palminteri) is sick.
Saints is strangely spellbinding, yet you wouldn't know it at the time. The movie offers very few overtly dramatic scenes, yet it moves along at a consistent pace, slowly building upon itself and its characters. Thanks to a good screenplay and a group of actors who really decided to elevate themselves and go above and beyond, the movie works on many levels, and it's a little surprising it wasn't released in a broader range of theaters. The movie isn't mainstream, but it is certainly one of those films that could have successfully flown under the radar and earned a decent amount of cash.
Aside for LaBeouf, the other real star is Tatum, who, unlike LaBeouf, looks like your typical Hollywood actor but who brings a true intensity to the role. He was good in Step Up, but he is explosive in Saints, and makes a brutally pathetic character sympathetic. One scene where he beats someone else with a baseball bat is so simple, yet Tatum takes it to the next level. His expression at the end says it all.
Despite being a quality film, Saints isn't the kind of drama that is so good you could watch it over and over again. I was glad I watched it, but one time is enough. On top of that, I was a little disappointed Rosario Dawson isn't used more. She only gets a few minutes of screen time despite being top-billed, and she is a rather recognizable face for a bit part.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a well-done movie, with strong performance and a great screenplay. The movie isn't perfect by any means, but for those looking for a smaller drama that few people will see, this one may be worth renting.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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