"Sonny was right. The working man is a sucker."
Director: Robert de Niro
Screenplay: Chazz Palminteri
Running time: 121 minutes
Starring: Robert de Niro, Chazz Palminteri, Lillo Brancato
Synopsis: A young boy growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s is torn between the lifestyles and teachings of two men: his working father and the head of the local crime scene, both of whom bring him up in very different ways.
A Bronx Tale is a crime movie set in 1960s New York and starring Robert de Niro. Rarely could any description of a movie give you a firmer idea of what to expect, but in fact A Bronx Tale, for better and worse, largely avoids the conventions of the crime genre in a way that rather divides opinion - there is more doo-wop than you might expect, for one thing. This movie is a world away from The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, although there is a resemblance to Goodfellas in more than one scene (notably when the narrator introduces a series of improbably nicknamed Italian crime partners - Frankie Coffeecake, JoJo the Whale and so on).
Calogero Anello is a boy growing up in a tough (but communal) Italian district of the Bronx. He is a good kid by nature and his father Lorenzo, a bus driver played by Robert de Niro, wants him to stay out of trouble and have no truck with the very visible organised crime scene operating in the district. But Calogero (played at age nine by Francis Capra) idolises the local kingpin, Sonny (Chazz Palminteri), for the respect he receives and the flash manner in which he leads his life. When Calogero witnesses Sonny kill a man, he refuses to rat to the police at the line-up, which even his father knows is the only thing to do given Sonny's power: "You did the right thing for a bad person."
Sonny takes a shine to Calogero and becomes almost a second father, giving him paid work at the bar next to Calogero's family apartment, the centre of the local crime scene and a place Lorenzo insists he stay away from. Lorenzo is incensed with Sonny and has the courage to confront him and tell him to stay away from his son. Although he knows he cannot compete with Sonny's power, he refuses to let his position be compromised, and does all he can to keep his son out of the hands of Sonny and those around him.
However there is not really that much he can do, and Calogero, drawn by the glamour of Sonny's power and respect, stays ingratiated to the crime scene. Forward eight years, and Calogero - or 'C', as Sonny calls him - is now seventeen and played by Lillo Brancato. He has not really become a criminal - indeed Brancato's performance has the character, if anything, more timorous than he was before; Calogero is a far cry from the young Henry Hill. But he is closely bonded to Sonny and hangs out with the other tough kids in the area.
Calogero faces all the problems of adolescence, plus those of growing up in such a tense community, and it is from here that Sonny emerges as a rather complex character. On the one hand he is the powerful crime boss - he quotes from Machiavelli and tells C that, if it comes down to it, it is better to be feared than loved (as Lorenzo tells his son, "people don't love him, they fear him, there's a difference"); and he is involved in incidents of needless violence. But there is also a benevolent and responsible side to the man. He tells Calogero to stay in school as well as learning from him ("get two educations") and advises him to stay away from the troublemaking local kids ("they're jerk-offs, hear me, jerk-offs"). At one point he says of the crime life, "it's not for you". When C wants to ask out a black girl he met at school (played by Taral Hicks), Sonny tells him to go for it - that it's their happiness that matters and not what other people think. As the problems of adolesence, violence and racism get worse, C is torn increasingly between his two mentors until the movie's violent climax.
A Bronx Tale is interesting viewing for anyone fascinated by the crime genre, though it is not, it must be said, a truly great movie. Some of the incidents and sub-plots in Chazz Palminteri's script (adapted from his successful one-man play) are awkwardly contrived - why does Sonny take such a shine to the boy, and how does Calogero manage to stay out of trouble while his friends, who Sonny doesn't even like, get themselves into such a mess? As far as de Niro's directing is concerned, this is an acceptable but not stunning debut. Some of the acting, too, is shaky, although de Niro gives a good performance - he is incapable of anything else - and Palminteri is convincing as Sonny, the most interesting character in the movie (and one who rather overshadows de Niro).
However the movie also has its strengths. It is largely successful in striking a middle way between the cynicism of typical gangster movies and the bland moralism of a more family-oriented take. Its masterstroke is the conception of Sonny as a crime boss who knows exactly what he's doing but is not quite sure whether he should be doing it. Although the overarching storyline is shaky, there are some great isolated moments where Palminteri's script reflects on the rights and wrongs of the movie's many themes - family, work, crime, race, violence. And as a little extra, in the final scene you get a great appearance by Joe Pesci as one of Sonny's old friends.
Though not great, A Bronx Tale has enough insight and originality to make it worth watching. It is violent but not indulgently so, and the violence never goes unquestioned. Palminteri and de Niro have both appeared in better movies, and nothing about de Niro's direction suggests he is as gifted a director as he is an actor. But this should not detract from the quality of the picture itself.