Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and Several Scenes of Violence
Directed by: Robert De Niro
Written by: Chazz Palminteri
(based on the play A BRONX TALE by Chazz Palminteri)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, Francis Capra, Lillo Brancato Jr., Kathrine Narducci, Taral Hicks & Joe Pesci
A BRONX TALE is not your typical gangster tale. Instead of the usual rise through mob hierarchy story, Robert De Niro’s directorial debut (based on Chazz Palminteri’s play) focuses more on a coming-of-age plot that happens to include the allure of organized crime. The film/play is also autobiographical of Chazz (starring in the role of local mob boss Sonny), which adds another interesting layer to a solid crime-drama. BRONX TALE is far from perfect mainly due to a somewhat unfocused final act, but it’s worth the time of any self-respecting gangster aficionado.
In 1960’s New York, Calogero is the young son of Lorenzo, a working man in a bad neighborhood. Calogero admires his father, but also looks up to the strong and silent Sonny. Sonny is a gangster who’s steadily rising to the top of their neighborhood. After a little incident (in which Calogero does a good thing for a bad man), Sonny befriends Calogero (now under the nickname of C) and mentors him much to the dismay of Lorenzo. As C grows into a budding teenager, he becomes torn between following his fathers old-fashioned life or succumbing to the glamor of the mafia.
A BRONX TALE is driven by confident directing on De Niro’s part and solid writing from Palminteri. The blending of a coming-of-age tale and organized crime doesn’t seem like a much tapped formula. This unique combination is handled very well, but overly familiar/predictable plot elements still remain. These latter scenes almost feel like they’re from an entirely different movie and bring BRONX TALE down from total greatness. A romance between C and a taboo-breaking type of girl (for his neighborhood) is forced and I predicted one plot development surrounding it about 10 minutes before it actually happened. This subplot ultimately pushes important developments forward in the final third, but feels unconvincing nonetheless. The dialogue in the would-be romantic scenes is far too simple and clichéd. There could have been better ways of playing this out.
Though Lillo Brancato Jr. (as teenage C) and Francis Capra (as prepubescent C) are blank slates, that’s sort of required for the story. This is primarily about a young Italian-American man trying to find his way through the harsh environment of the Bronx. The main appeal to crime-movie buffs will be seeing Palminteri and De Niro facing off in a gangster movie. Chazz Palminteri goes out of his way not to be a stereotypical mob boss and there’s a certain charm in watching him take young C under his wing, despite us fully well knowing what this well-dressed thug is capable of. Robert De Niro takes the interesting approach of being an honest working man who wants nothing to do with the world of violence that dwells a couple of houses down from his family’s apartment. The most interesting part about both characters is watching how they have good and bad qualities as individuals, even Sonny. In this way, the impressionable C is getting two educations as he puts it when struggling with balancing both father figures in his life.
Though the last third becomes a bit of a hastily rushed climax in terms of execution, it has a powerful stand-out moment involving a quick cameo appearance of a regular De Niro associate. In directing the film, it also seems like De Niro took a lot of his influence from long-time director/friend Martin Scorsese. There’s a fantastic use of songs in the soundtrack that helps engross the viewer into the 60’s setting without feeling cheesy or overly forced. Great scenes litter the film, my favorite being a moment involving a showdown of Sonny’s power against a group of bar-wrecking bikers in his neighborhood.
I’ve seen A BRONX TALE ranked among the best crime movies of all-time and the best mob movies of the 90’s (a great decade for this genre). While I wouldn’t go that far, it’s an interesting gangster film that’s unlike any other I’ve seen. The main focus is a coming-of-age tale that’s deeply personal to writer Chazz Palminteri in a lot of ways and it shows. Perhaps, his reach extends his actual grasp (mainly in the addition of C’s romance and a climax that rushes through some extraordinary plot points), but the film remains good as a whole. BRONX TALE is well worth watching if only to see Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro have an unconventional face-off in a gangster movie that’s primarily about family values vs. the allure of crime.