"The Boondock Saints," the story of two working-class Irish Catholic brothers in Boston who start blowing away bad guys in the name of God, is finally here.

Well, not exactly here here.

The tale of bloody mayhem that sparked a bidding war in 1997 opened Friday at two theaters in Boston and another two in Los Angeles before rolling out as a big Blockbuster promotion on video.

It's not much, but even that seems like a miracle.

What happened to "Boondock Saints" and Troy Duffy, the ex-bartender who wrote it, is a stark illustration of the impact of the Columbine High School massacre on American culture.

The Washington Post met then-25-year-old Duffy in 1997 when he was anointed by reigning art-house king Miramax, then met him again in 1998 after Miramax dumped him and the movie over casting differences.

Since then, Duffy managed to make the movie with a third of the original budget, B-list stars and no guarantee of distribution. But the first-time director finished "Boondock Saints" and screened it for distributors last May. Just two weeks before, two students in Colorado had gunned down 12 classmates and a teacher.

Suddenly, Duffy found that no one would touch his movie.

The much-anticipated film had become, overnight, a political leper. And little wonder: The "Boondock Saints" are two brothers (Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery) in dark peacoats with industrial-strength guns and oversize crucifixes who blow people away with cold-blooded precision. As the credits roll, there's even a man on the street who talks to a television reporter about getting himself a "trench coat" and joining the vigilante cause. The film seemed tailor-made to stoke the virulent national debate over violence in Hollywood, and likely to vex the Catholic Church in the bargain.

So "Boondock Saints," a story that producers and studio executives hyped three years ago as one of the best they'd ever seen, was suddenly unreleasable.

There were other politics involved, internal Hollywood politics. After Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein turned his back on Duffy, others were reluctant to step in. The Sundance Film Festival embraced the film, then rejected it, summarily telling Duffy's agents that they'd "changed their minds." The rumor mill worked overtime: Duffy was perceived as arrogant, raw, unsophisticated--the very traits that once drew men in Hugo Boss suits to J. Sloan's, where Duffy worked, to drink beer from plastic pitchers.

Three years ago, Weinstein intoned: "These characters come from Troy Duffy's soul. . . . A guy like this won't be around on a one-shot deal."

Now people say, and never for quotation: "He rubs people the wrong way sometimes. He's very sure of himself. He suffers from the whole too-fast-too-soon-too-young syndrome."

And Duffy, who swings daily--sometimes hourly--between despair and euphoria, afraid to jinx the moment that his film will flicker in a darkened room? He says: "All I want is to see my film in front of one [expletive] audience, to see how they react."

Duffy wrote "Boondock Saints" when he was living with his brother Taylor in a studio apartment in a crime-ridden section of old Hollywood. The building had a crack den. Duffy came home from work at Sloan's one night to find a young woman being wheeled out of the building on a gurney. Dead of an overdose. For three days.

"The other heroin addicts in her apartment hadn't noticed," says Duffy, still disgusted at the memory. The incident left a deep impression on the Duffy brothers, who talked for days about their revulsion.

"I said, 'I wonder why nobody goes the other way? Just goes insane? And takes it out on the right people?' " recalls Duffy. "We were actually discussing it--we were that close to doing something about this poor girl who nobody gave a [expletive] about." He pauses. "That's what got me going. I was at the end of my rope with that stuff. That's not how I grew up. That's not what America is supposed to be," he says.

"Boondock Saints," scribbled on yellow legal pads in between checking IDs and breaking up fights at Sloan's, is Duffy's vigilante fantasy based on that experience, set to music by his band, which is named after the movie.

When schoolyard shootings across the country began to dominate the headlines, Duffy stopped to think about what effect his film might have on young minds (though it is rated R). "I've been worried about that from the beginning," he says. "But I say this: I cannot live my life worrying about what some psychopath is going to do. If someone is going to do something like that, they'll do it no matter what. Those kids at Columbine had a [expletive] problem. I'd like to talk to their parents."

How would Duffy feel if his film did inspire violence? "I'd feel like [expletive]," he admits, "but I'll never let something like that rule what I do. When I get creative, I'm telling a story: 'Think. Think about vigilantism. About capital punishment. Do you agree? Do you agree with what they're doing?' " He lights the next in an unending string of cigarettes. "Everyone has thought about doing this. Everyone has had those thoughts, even my mother."

When Miramax dropped the film in early 1998, a small production company, Franchise Films--which has since become an important production house--agreed to finance "Boondock Saints." Willem Dafoe ("The Last Temptation of Christ") took the key role of a gay FBI agent on the trail of destruction left by the vigilante brothers.

The 31-day shoot was scheduled for Toronto and Boston, summer 1998. The Miramax budget of $15 million was slashed to $10 million, then $5.5 million. A bonding company that insured the film made Duffy cut 20 pages of the script just before the shoot began. But overall, the experience was positive: "It's where I felt the safest," says the director over lunch at a busy deli in Santa Monica. Actor Gary Sinise walks by. Duffy doesn't even look up. "The most creative. Like I was in my mother's womb."

He set out to edit the film while recording the soundtrack in Boston with the rest of the band (the group had signed a deal with Atlantic Records), and by late fall a 15-minute composite of "Boondock" was making the rounds in Hollywood, stirring buzz. He had to recut the film after his first version was given an NC-17 rating for violence; he appealed to the ratings board, lost, then shaved it to an R.

Duffy paid his own way to the French Riviera to screen "Boondock" during last year's Cannes Film Festival. His agents and Franchise hustled the film. Between Cannes and the American Film Market in Santa Monica, most of the foreign rights were sold.

But American distributors were another story. Columbine had ratcheted the stakes in the debate over violence in America, and people all over the country were blaming Hollywood.

Miramax was the first to say no, thanks. Everyone else followed--Artisan, New Line, October, Trimark. All the major studios saw it, too, but everyone in the industry knew the film would not be bought.

"Everybody wanted to see it. But it was like a morbid curiosity," says Chris Brinker, Duffy's producer. "It was like, 'It's violent. Forget it.' "

The bank that financed the film turned down one low-ball offer from a small distributor, Lion's Gate. Amid the gloom, there was one piece of good news: At the end of last summer, Brinker contacted Blockbuster, which bought the video rights for $100,000.

Dean Wilson, who acquired the film for the video chain, said the violence did not deter him. "It's a tough one," he said. "I think the movie draws some pretty interesting lines between right and wrong. It's not a disturbed person killing people for no reason. But I think everyone is still trying to figure Columbine out in their own hearts and minds."

Still, "Boondock" hung in limbo. Finally Brinker and Duffy borrowed money from their families to release the film in five cities on their own. They were ready to go. Then came a letter from Franchise's financier, Imperial Bank, saying exclusive TV rights had been sold to USA Networks, prohibiting any theatrical release.

The very final blow was Sundance, the independent film festival that seemed to be "Boondock's" best shot at reviving interest. In mid-November, two weeks before announcing the official list of films, festival director Geoff Gilmore told one of Duffy's agents that "Boondock Saints" would be included, according to several people involved, though Gilmore disputes that. Cassian Elwes, who heads independent film at the William Morris Agency, told Duffy, Brinker and other producers attached to the film that he had learned "Boondock" had been chosen.

But the weekend before acceptance letters were sent, Duffy's agents informed him that "Boondock" was suddenly out of the festival. No explanation.

Gilmore vehemently denied he'd ever told anyone that "Boondock Saints" would be at Sundance, which opens tomorrow in Park City, Utah. "It's a silly story. To say someone tells you you're in the festival. It's ridiculous, it was never true," Gilmore said.

Does it really matter? To Duffy it did. Every defeat knocked him a little lower. As Brinker describes their ordeal, Duffy falls silent, even when the producer explains how he persuaded USA and Blockbuster at the last minute to allow a limited release. "I'm sick of feeling like this," Duffy says finally. "Being depressed all the time. Sometimes I think we did it all for nothing." He reaches for a smoke. "Jesus Christ, man."

Nobody says moviemaking is supposed to be easy. But is it supposed to suck the life out of you?

Apparently so. What Hollywood gives, Hollywood can take away. "It's part of a machination going on in Hollywood for a long time," says Rich Zinman ("Michael"), one of the myriad producers on "Boondock." "Someone becomes hot, then once you're put up on a pedestal, part of your role on the pedestal is to have people knock you down."

CAPTION: Troy Duffy: "I cannot live my life worrying about what some psychopath is going to do."

CAPTION: Duffy, left, and producer Chris Brinker. "Sometimes I think we did it all for nothing," Duffy says.