May 09, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT
We gave it a B-

Even in an age of pumped-up heroes, it’s rare to encounter an actor as physically imposing as Nick Chinlund, the star of A Brother’s Kiss. With his bodybuilder’s physique and flat, scowling mug set off by Neanderthal eyebrows, Chinlund isn’t conventionally magnetic or ”sensitive,” and his character, a screwup named Lex who once longed to be a professional basketball player and is now living on tattered dreams, may strike you, at first, as a pushy loser. The closer you look, though, the more you see. Lex, with his good intentions buried under a wasted life, is like Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy transplanted from the overheated Freudian melodrama of On the Waterfront to the mean-streets scuzziness of modern indie-movie dysfunction. Brando created a new screen type: the tender brute. Chinlund’s Lex is a tender sadist who walks over everyone around him only because he’s been so stepped on himself.

In an extended flashback to 1979, we see Lex and his little brother, Mick, as kids growing up in East Harlem under the shadow of their martini-swilling mom (Cathy Moriarty, underplaying the blowsiness, for once), and we get a glimpse of the shocking moment that shaped their lives. The two slip into Central Park for a midnight swim, and Mick is raped by a vicious cop, who is then stabbed by Lex. The two never mention the incident again, but it reverberates into their adulthood.

Sixteen years later, Mick (Michael Raynor), morose and ascetic, wired too tight, is an asexual cop trying to keep the world decent when it’s really his own life he wants to cleanse. Lex, meanwhile, meets a loving young woman (Rosie Perez), gets her pregnant, and then, shortly after their baby is born, takes a job as a drug dealer, at which point he spirals into crack addiction. His slide into the gutter is marked by encounters with several eye-catching characters, ranging from a squirrelly drug dealer (John Leguizamo) to a crackhead played by Marisa Tomei with the kind of naked hunger and willingness to set aside her own vanity you wish she’d bring to bigger roles. The first feature directed by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, A Brother’s Kiss, which is loosely based on Chinlund’s memories of growing up in East Harlem, is less a story than a chain of grimly realized kitchen-sink episodes. Yet it’s been made with visual eloquence and with a pungent feeling for the way that desperate lives cling to their own lackadaisical design. B-

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