Thursday, August 4, 2016

Gangster Flick Home Stretch: A Bronx Tale (1993)

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Director: Robert De Niro

A strong and unique gangster movie that overcomes some noticeably weaker aspects.

Based on a stage play by Chazz Palminteri written from his own experience growing up in the Bronx, the movie looks at two key periods in the life of Calogero as he struggles between the lessons taught by his father and a local mafia figure. In 1960, a 10-year-old Calogero is enamored by the swagger and presence of Sonny (Chazz Palmenteri), a neighborhood guy who is the most powerful crime figure. Despite the warnings of his parents, the impressionable Calogero can't help but be mesmerized by the sharp dress and image of strength found in Sonny. Sonny takes no notice of the fawning young Calogero until the boy publicly refuses to tell the police that he witnessed Sonny kill a man in broad daylight. From that point, Sonny tries to take Calogero under his wing and introduce him to the criminal lifestyle. When Calogero is caught spending time in Sonny's bar by his father Lorenzo (Robert De Niro), a tense standoff occurs between Sonny and Lorenzo. While no violence occurs, a quiet but severe tension arises between the earnest, hard-working Lorenzo and the lethal Sonny.

The story flashes forward eight years to 1968, when we learn that the now-18-year-old Calogero has been managing to toe the delicate line between doing what his father wants while also maintaining ties with his wastrel friends as well as the still-powerful Sonny. Calogero dresses the part of a would-be hoodlum and even does some low-level loan sharking, but always stops short of committing any serious acts of violence or criminality. Things eventually come to a head when Calogero develops a crush on an African-American girl, Jane, from a nearby neighborhood, something which could potentially make him a pariah among his intensely racist friends.

One of the more intense confrontations between Sonny and
Lorenzo. The battle over Calogero's life and upbringing is
one of the most human dramas you'll see in a gangster movie.
The movie bears many aspects familiar to those who have seen the New York gangster movies of Martin Scorsese, but Palminteri tells a story that is far more personal and presents several unique elements. For one, the character of Sonny is splendidly well-rounded. Yes, he is a brutal criminal who garners respect through fear. At the same time, he is more than a mere thug. He displays an intelligence and wisdom with Calogero that is unusual in such a character but authentic in this story. It is Sonny who repeatedly tells Calogero to get away from his small-minded friends, who Sonny says will eventually bring him down. It is Sonny who urges Calogero to stay in school and create opportunities for himself. It is also Sonny who tells the young man to follow his heart and start seeing Jane, regardless of what his ignorant peers think. At the same time, Sonny still runs a criminal operation through violence and intimidation, which is why Calogero's father is continually fighting for his son to turn away from Sonny as any sort of mentor. The specific dilemmas are often wonderfully subtle, such as when Lorenzo takes his son to a boxing match, where Sonny offers to bring the two down to their ring-side seats. Lorenzo, trying to maintain his integrity, refuses the offer but has to watch his son fight the urge to join Sonny. Simpler moments like these are rare for gangster movies, and A Bronx Tale includes several very well-executed sequences like it.

The movie isn't flawless. Some of the performances are rather weak, most notably Taral Hicks as Jane and even Lillo Brancato as the older Calogero at times. Part of this is due to a script that is occasionally tepid, but it also doesn't help that the performances by Palminteri and De Niro are typically phenomenal. I suppose this can always be a risk when using such amazingly talented actors - that the shortcomings of any other actors become much more obvious. The weaker performances hardly undermine the movie, but I did find them occasionally distracting.

I really enjoyed this movie, and I wish that I had seen it earlier. I would recommend that anyone watch A Bronx Tale, and then follow it up with a viewing of Scorsese's Mean Streets - two movies very different in general theme and tone but which take place at very similar times and within similar settings. They are two of the very best New York gangster movies that one could possibly watch, although for different reasons.