In his feature film debut, Under Hellgate Bridge, Michael Sergio writes, directs and produces the story of three brothers whose lives are destroyed by heroin addiction. Sergio keeps the subject and style fairly elemental (no fancy effects here), but the work is surprisingly accomplished for a first-time effort.

The action begins literally 'under Hellgate Bridge,' in Queens, New York, where a young man dies from a drug overdose. At the funeral, the family's mourning is interrupted by Ryan (Michael Rodrick), the dead man's eldest brother, who arrives late. Now back in the neighborhood after serving time in jail, Ryan tries to help his other brother, Eddie (Brian Vincent), kick the habit. Ryan also renews an old feud with the petty mobster Vincent (Jonathan LaPaglia), who married Ryan's former girlfriend, Carla (Jordan Bayne), while Ryan was falsely imprisoned. Eventually, Ryan tells Carla he still loves her and Carla informs Ryan that he, not Vincent, is the father of her child. A showdown between Ryan and Vincent in a neighborhood bar finally determines who will win Carla's hand.

Sergio calls Under Hellgate Bridge 'a modern-day western in present-day Astoria' and 'Shane meets GoodFellas.' The comparisons are apt, since the writer-director turns the clock back on Tarantino-styled irony, violence and Chinese Box storytelling. Once you accept the neoclassical approach and cautionary drug theme, it becomes much easier to get involved in the serious and gritty world created. Sergio does a good job of narrowing his story focus and pacing the action. (The bridge symbolism isn't too heavy, either.) Moreover, Sergio's production looks and sounds great, thanks to cinematographer Leland Krane and composer Stephen Moccio, respectively.

Best of all, the actor-turned-director has employed an excellent ensemble, including Michael Rodrick and Jonathan LaPaglia (brother of Anthony) as the main rivals. (Both actors reveal true star quality.) Jordan Bayne has a little more difficulty portraying the woman in the middle, partly because Carla's motivations are not clearly defined and partly because all the women in this drama are passive. (One wonders why Carla ever married the loathsome Vincent in the first place, particularly if she knew she was carrying Ryan's child.)

There are a few other drawbacks, including the all-too-tidy ending and the fact that there is not one moment of comic relief. (GoodFellas and "Sopranos" fans will find Hellgate Bridge just too somber.) Still, for an updated--but not revisionist--version of Dead End or Angels With Dirty Faces or even Mean Streets, you could do worse, and you'll certainly be hearing a lot more from the folks who built Hellgate Bridge.

--Eric Monder