It’s hard not to scour the lived-in face of “Albanian Gangster” star John Rezaj for all the severity of experience he’s bringing to the role writer/director Matthew A. Brown has given him — of Leon, a volatile, substance-abusing hard case both respected and feared by his fellow immigrant hoods.
According to the press notes, Brown spent two years ingratiating himself with the Bronx’s notoriously guarded Albanian community to help authenticate an ambitious mob screenplay, only to meet real-life ex-con Rezaj and reshape the film into a partly improvised smash-and-grab indie built around his wiry, dangerous energy.
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Still struggling to reclaim a lost aura of invincibility after years behind bars, Leon lives with his mother (Rezaj’s real-life mom Maria), takes on an admiring protégé in Vinny (Nick Cinnante), and starts up a redemptive romance (Ashley C. Williams). But when the call for retributive violence arises, Leon’s not quite the shrewd criminal he once was.
Working at times in a semi-documentary style in which Rezaj and other Albanian non-professionals in the cast speak to their history of cultural survival in America, Brown is after something more grittily matter-of-fact than most glimpses into subcultural underworlds. And until on-camera violence is depicted, the less-seasoned viewer might even assume this was nonfiction, or at least the pilot for a proposed reality show about Albanian thugs. But that raw looseness is too often just sloppy filmmaking, and the gangster clichés ultimately win out over even Rezaj’s roiling, ripped-from-the-streets vitality.