Dir: Leon Ichaso. US. 2001. 99mins

With his intense, charismatic performance in Pinero, Benjamin Bratt -best known for his tenure on US TV series Law And Order and a few tepid features - reaches a major turning point in his career. Displaying the kind of acting chops associated with the likes of Robert De Niro or Al Pacino before he began chewing scenery, Bratt is sensational as Miguel Pinero, the Puerto Rican poet, playwright, junkie and thief who achieved Broadway success but never managed to shake his street hustler ways. But despite Bratt's galvanising performance, and stellar support from a cast including Esposito, Vasquez, Wright, Moreno and Soto, Pinero himself is too unknown a figure, and the film too arty, to attract anything but modest crowds. In the US, Pinero has taken $91,189 from 14 sites after seven weeks: next week it screens in the Panorama sidebar at Berlin.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1948, Miguel Pinero grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Imbued with an early love of poetry and literature by his mother (Moreno), he didn't discover his own gift for writing until a string of petty crimes landed him in Sing-Sing, one of America's toughest prison. His controversial play Short Eyes, a sensation when it opened on Broadway (it was later made into a film), was based on his experiences there. After making a name for himself, he and his good friend Miguel Algarin (Esposito) founded the Nuyoircan Poets Cafe to showcase the work of Latino writers and performers.

Despite his immense talent and success, Pinero seemed irrevocably drawn to the low life. Strung out on drugs and partial to armed robbery, he repeatedly found himself in jail. Careless with his personal relationships, he charmed and abused his friends in equal measure until finally he had burned every bridge. Although inspired by the tumultuous life of the real man, the film is clearly labelled "a fictionalised dramatisation." It ignores the artist's fondness for teenage boys, but does contain flashbacks showing Pinero's own sexual molestation when he was a child.

Writer/director Ichaso (Bitter Sugar, Crossover Dreams) and his long-time cinematographer Claudio Chea, aim for a stream of consciousness look that's as hip, jazzy and fragmented as their central character, a renegade artist whose syncopated but fluid poetry and prose served as a precursor to rap and hip-hop. The hand-held camera (picture is shot in a combination of digital and 16mm film) is constantly on the move. Bouncing between black-and-white and colour (which at times proves distracting), the action is all close-ups and medium shots, jump cuts, slow motion and frame rate changes within a shot. Although beautifully shot, it gets somewhat arty at times (a sequence in Puerto Rico looks like a fashion shoot) and can't shake a certain theatrical feel to many of the scenes.

The film feels a lot longer than its running time of 99 minutes although it improves on a second viewing and, surprisingly, plays better on video than it does on the big screen. The real reason to see the film is Bratt's commanding performance. The actor doesn't have one false moment: every movement, every shuffle, every drugged-out nod feels natural. He succeeds, even when the film as a whole, does not.

Pro cos: GreeneStreet Films, Lower EastSide Films
US dist: Miramax
Intl dist: Miramax Int'l
Prods: John Penotti, Fisher Stevens, Tim Williams
Scr: Leon Ichaso
Cinematography: Claudio Chea
Prod des: Sharon Lomofsky
Ed: David Tedeschi
Music: Kip Hanrahan
Main cast: Benjamin Bratt, Giancarlo Esposito, Talisa Soto, Rita Moreno, Nelson Vasquez, Michael Wright, Mandy Patinkin