Casino (1995)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi (from his novel)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone


Despite the fact that he is often associated with films about the mafia in the public imagination, Martin Scorsese has actually only made a handful of films that deal explicitly with organized crime during his lengthy career. Although there has often been an overarching interest in vice and corruption throughout his filmography, the only true mafia films that Scorsese has made are Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. Out of those four films, three stand out as highly significant in the filmmaker’s career, with Mean Streets being his first major film and the arrival of Scorsese as a generational talent, Goodfellas widely being acknowledged as one of his best films, and The Departed being the film for which Scorsese was finally rewarded with an Academy Award. However, Casino tends to get lost in the shuffle among those other milestones, perhaps due to its close temporal proximity in release to Goodfellas, or perhaps due to the perceived similarity of the two films’ subject matter and style. While I wouldn’t say that I’ve been dismissive of the film over the years, I have fallen into the trap of passing it over for other Scorsese films because of its perceived redundancy. People often tend to discuss the film as a Goodfellas-lite, and, to be sure, it isn’t the masterpiece that that other film is, but Casino is an interesting film and worth examining on its own merits. While it shares kinship with many other films from Scorsese’s corpus, it stands out as a distinctive and divergent take on a familiar story. In a lot of ways, the film is a deconstruction of the gangster genre, and while it isn’t totally successful in breaking out of the established mold of the genre, it contains plenty of interesting wrinkles.

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Not surprisingly, Casino concerns itself with the mafia’s interests in Las Vegas in the 1970s. It follows Sam “Ace” Rothstein’s (De Niro) rise from being one of the top sports handicappers in the country to one of Las Vegas’s biggest movers and shakers as the manager of the Tangiers hotel and casino. Sam is put into his role by a Chicago crime family who is secretly behind the Tangiers’s operations, and his role is to initiate a complicated skimming operation that will funnel a portion of the casino’s profits directly to the mafia. Profits are soaring at the Tangiers and Sam is doing well until twin road blocks are placed into his life in the form of Ginger (Stone), a high class escort whom Sam falls in love with, and Nicky (Pesci), a mob enforcer whom he knows from back home. Though Sam might not be squeaky clean, compared to Ginger and Nicky, he’s a straight shooter, and their negative influence on his life begins to bring down unneeded attention on the operation. Sam finds himself in trouble with the gaming commission, and as Ginger falls deeper into substance abuse, and Nicky begins to careen further and further off the rails, the stability of the entire operation starts to crumble. The tenuous façade of normalcy that everyone in the film is operating under begins to disappear, and the law and regulating agencies eventually come to call and run the mafia influence out of town. Ultimately, the tragic tale of Sam, Nicky, Ginger and their associates is shown to be a microcosm of the Disneyfication of Las Vegas as a whole, as the film’s final scenes show the implosion of the old casinos like the Tangiers in favor of the thoroughly modern, corporately-owned, and family-friendly playgrounds that dominate the Strip today.

When compared to the sprawling mob epic that is Goodfellas, Casino feels tight and controlled, focusing in on its subject with laser precision. The film displays a similar authenticity and attention to period detail with its spiritual predecessor, but the presentation of these gilded worlds is very different. The first hour of Casino plays out very much like a documentary, giving the audience access to the inner workings of the Tangiers while extensive voice over from Sam and Nicky provides the context for the swirl of images. Typically, I am a very vocal critic of voice over in films, but it has become one of Scorsese’s directorial signatures and Casino is built around an extensive voice over structure. Often when it is overused, voice over is a crutch for the audience to follow narrative through receiving exposition dumps without having to make critical leaps or fully engage with a film, but there are always exceptions to that rule, and in Casino the voice over works to lend the film authenticity by linking it with documentary traditions. Particularly early in the film, the audience takes on the role of a visitor to Las Vegas, overwhelmed by the spectacle of the place, which Scorsese presents with his typical cinematic bravado, utilizing voice over to insure that the audience gains access to a place of privileged knowledge that tourists would obviously never have. The voice over puts Sam and Nicky in a place as the gatekeepers of the knowledge for the audience, although they are also under surveillance. Scorsese establishes a series of looking relationships between the casino employees in the film that is predicated on overarching surveillance, and even Sam is under the scrutiny of the eye in the sky. All of these details are important in creating the dense tapestry of Casino, and by so carefully establishing the proper day-to-day functions of the business as a delicate equilibrium, Scorsese allows the audience to appreciate just how fully the operation goes off the rails later in the film.

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Casino begins with a car bombing and then uses a flashback structure to tell us how things have unraveled to the point that someone would betray and attempt to kill our protagonist, Sam. As established early in the film, Sam has created a perfectly functional ecosystem at the Tangiers and when outside elements are introduced to the mix, things begin to fall apart quickly. Sam’s personal life starts to unravel when he puts too much trust in Ginger, but the biggest element of chaos in Las Vegas is Nicky. Initially sent by the bosses to assist Sam and provide muscle for the operation, Nicky quickly sees an opportunity to go rogue in Las Vegas and he assembles a crew that operates with near impunity. Even in a filmography that is rife with cold blooded killers, Nicky Santoro stands out for his savage brutality. Pesci plays him as someone who takes great delight in killing and who does it with a gleeful efficiency. Aside from enriching himself and his crew, and gaining more power, there is little end to Nicky’s violent means, but Pesci doesn’t play him as a mindless killer. He’s ruthless, but Nicky is scariest in the moments when Pesci allows the audience to see the wheels beginning to turn in his mind. Though his bursts of violence are often sudden and explosive, they’re usually preceded by a brief moment of consideration and calculation which Pesci portrays subtly in his facial expressions. There’s a moment late in the film in which Nicky decides to fully betray Sam and begin an affair with Ginger that puts this quiet calculation on full display. The most dangerous thing about Nicky is that he is unpredictable, but not out of lack of consideration; he’s already weighed the outcomes and potential consequences of his actions, but he simply doesn’t care.

Pesci’s portrayal of the homicidal maniac Nicky is the most readily memorable aspect of Casino for me, but it isn’t the strongest performance in the film. As I mentioned when I was writing about his performance in A Bronx Tale, De Niro puts in a strong performance that serves as the bedrock of the film and allows Pesci’s manic energy to reach dizzying heights by comparison. He’s a great actor and his role in Casino might have been one of the last truly great roles and performances that he turned in before sliding into the more comfortable niche that he’s occupied in his late career, but he’s still overshadowed by Sharon Stone. I had forgotten just how much range Stone demonstrates in playing Ginger. Her character is sad, broken, an addict, and requires the actress to portray a full range of heightened emotion. Her performance charts the full descent into addiction, and she imbues Ginger with the type of manic energy so typical in cocaine addicts. Though she’s surrounded in the film by violent, manipulative men, Ginger is never a victim of anyone but herself, and even in the full throes of addiction by film’s end, she retains a sort of cunning agency. It’s a performance that is both maddening in its depiction of an individual’s capacity for harm to others, and heartbreaking in its revelation of an addict’s capacity for self-destruction. If Sam is the closest thing in the film to a hero, then Ginger is ostensibly a villain, and her actions throughout the film certainly cast her as such, but she is still pitiable. Although Scorsese wouldn’t allow a character like Ginger to fall into the trap of being a stereotype or trope, Stone’s performance is the linchpin to fully humanizing her and giving her character arc a strong sense of pathos. In a different year she very well could have won an Oscar for this performance rather than simply being nominated.

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Casino regularly gets short changed when it comes to assessing its place in Scorsese’s body of work or in the subset of crime films about the mafia in which it exists, but it is overdue for a critical reevaluation. The film isn’t a masterpiece, but it should be ranked favorably among the second tier of Scorsese’s deep filmography. While it’s most frequently remembered for its excessive, gratuitous violence, the film offers an insightful character study of its protagonists and also a stylish, informative look behind the curtain of the casino industry in its heyday. It explores one of the overarching themes that Scorsese has returned to often in his films, the introduction of an element of chaos into a pristine, closed system. That chaos takes different forms in different films. Here it is Nicky and Ginger’s destructive capabilities, in The Aviator, Howard Hughes’s mental illness plays a similar role, and in The Departed, chaos is personified by the moles in both the mafia and the police department. Scorsese has often chosen to investigate organizational structures and the forces that bring them crashing down like a house of cards, and Casino is a great example of that narrative. It’s a film that deserves to be examined within the context of its director’s greatest works, but one that also represents some interesting stylistic diversions and that can, and does, stand up on its own as a work of art.

Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness (1992)

Dir. Sam Raimi

Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz


As will become apparent later in this project when I review the first half of the Friday the 13th series, a few Nightmare on Elm Street films, and, eventually, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I had a soft spot for horror movies growing up, particularly slashers and gore-fests. This obsession with the macabre goes back to my early childhood and my introduction to the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s. I came to love Dracula and the Invisible Man, but particularly Frankenstein’s monster, and I would search the weekly television listings for classic monster movies and record them off of cable late at night. When I was a little older, I’d sneak glances at the Friday the 13th movie marathon that ran every, well, Friday the 13th on the USA Network, and my tastes in scares began to mature and get a little darker, a little gorier. It wasn’t until probably my early teens, maybe 13 or 14 years old, that I first encountered the uniquely weird horror offered up by Sam Raimi. I saw Army of Darkness on television and it was immediately intriguing to me. It satisfied the gore and gross-out component, although it wasn’t really a true horror movie, and it added a strong comedy component that I wasn’t expecting. I liked the movie a lot but I didn’t really come back to it until my later teens. During high school my friends and I would start seeking out more and more hardcore and taboo horror films, often turning to Asian cinema and the emerging torture porn genre to provide these cheap thrills. The first two Evil Dead movies, providing some legitimate scares along with their moments of campy comedy, were acceptable to my friends’ deviant tastes, but the lighter, goofier Army of Darkness was more of a stretch to some of them. Eventually, sometime in high school, I picked up the director’s cut (officially titled Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness, the film’s original title), and would occasionally share it with friends, particularly around Halloween. By my early twenties, this movie, along with most of the horror movies in my collection, had gotten largely shelved. My tastes were changing rapidly and I didn’t see much value in the schlockier elements of my collection at the time. I still don’t go for horror movies too often, but I’ve enjoyed the later films from Raimi and I was happy to go back to one of his classics for this project.

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The film picks up immediately after the events of Evil Dead II with Ash (Campbell) being transported to the year 1300 AD. After arriving in the middle ages, Ash finds himself in the midst of a conflict between Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove). He is captured by Arthur’s knights who believe him to be a spy of Henry the Red, but Arthur’s Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie), believes Ash to be a hero promised in a prophecy. After being taken prisoner, Ash is taken to Arthur’s castle where he is thrown into a pit to be executed. Ash is able to escape the pit, killing a Deadite with the help of the Wise Man who returns his chainsaw to him. When he climbs his way to the top, he regains his “boomstick,” which he uses to quickly dispatch of another Deadite that attempts to escape the pit behind him. Ash is celebrated as a hero and he garners the affections of Sheila (Davidtz), a beautiful maiden. The Wise Man agrees to help Ash return to his own time, and tells him he must seek out the Necronomicon in order to do it. Ash’s quest for the Necronomicon leads him to battle demons and Deadites, but he finally persists and makes his way to the graveyard where the evil book is stored. However, Ash has never been one for attention to detail, so he has forgotten the magic words that will allow him to open the Necronomicon, and when he attempts to open the book without reciting the words properly, Ash unleashes an army of the dead on the land. Now in order to return to his home, he must defeat the Army of Darkness to save the castle and Sheila, who has been captured by the Deadites.

If that doesn’t exactly sound like the description of a horror movie, that’s because Army of Darkness really isn’t one. Although it does contain a few unsettling or scary moments, for the most part it’s a fantasy movie that leans heavily on slapstick comedy set pieces. The first two installments of the Evil Dead trilogy have their tongues firmly inserted into their cheeks, but they still fall distinctly into the horror genre. For the third installment, Raimi wanted to go in a different direction by getting Ash out of the cabin in the woods and into the larger world. He incorporates the influence of classic fish out of water tales like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Gulliver’s Travels, and the end result is a film that is distinctly different from its predecessors while retaining the same attitude and tone. Though he’s traded in the familiar setting of the first two films, plenty of Raimi’s filmmaking tricks are still on display in Army of Darkness. He returns often to the low tracking shots and queasily fast zooms that defined the Evil Dead films, implying the presence of spirits chasing Ash through the woods. He also retains his fondness for jump scares, and the few that show up in Army of Darkness might be the only moments in the film that could induce real terror in the audience. But, of course, Raimi’s most familiar tool is the star persona of Bruce Campbell in his signature role as Ash.

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A close friend of Raimi’s, Campbell helped him finance and create the original Evil Dead and has gone on to use his appearances as Ash to launch a career for himself as one of the most recognizable character actors currently working. As the film’s original title would suggest, in Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness, as in the other Evil Dead films, Campbell is asked to essentially carry the load from an acting standpoint. He is the most heavily featured actor in the series by far, and in many of his scenes he is paired with shrieking, nearly nonverbal demons. Luckily, Campbell very easily has the chops to entertain on his own for the film’s 90-minute run time. Campbell plays Ash as a spoof of the hyper-macho action stars of the time, and he delivers his punches as readily as his punchlines, never at a loss for words as the film spawned many catchphrases among horror fans. He is the engine for both action and comedy in the film, as Campbell possesses both the bravado of a traditional leading man, and the rubber-faced, physically performative gifts of an expert slapstick comedian. Raimi knows how to perfectly capture Campbell’s expressive face to render emotions ranging from confidence, to fear, to hysteria and he uses this malleable mug to great effect throughout the film. It’s impossible to imagine the Evil Dead series without Campbell as Ash; another actor just wouldn’t feel right in the role.

Raimi is able to do a lot with a little as a filmmaker, and that economy is on display again in Army of Darkness. Though the film was made well into the beginning of the CGI boom, he chose to use practical effects throughout the movie, employing miniatures and stop-motion animation to create the army of the dead. Though the effects do look a bit dated, they don’t necessarily look bad. In fact, there is a sort of nostalgic charm to the skeletons, as they recall the groundbreaking stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen. Raimi uses sharp, quick edits to propel the action in the film’s climactic battle between Ash, Arthur’s army, and the army of the dead, led by a reincarnated Evil Ash. These edits allow Raimi to mask the fact that he is employing a very small cast, and maintain the level of action at a fever pitch. Army of Darkness definitely feels like a throwback to a time when film genres weren’t as rigidly codified and swashbuckling heroes could coexist with supernatural demons and beautiful damsels in distress. This is decidedly a B-movie, but it’s a rather well-made one, and an entertaining one to boot. Campbell’s charisma carries over to the entire production, with even some of the animated skeletons delivering throwaway lines that are laugh-out-loud funny.

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Army of Darkness is a very fun movie experience, and it’s one that I would probably go back to more often if it weren’t for the terrible quality of the video transfer on the DVD copy that I own. I don’t know if the image quality has degraded over the years, but it’s really difficult for me to imagine myself watching this disc as a teen. There are times when the image becomes so grainy and dark that it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on on the screen at all. This is particularly the case during the film’s final battle, which was entirely shot at night. I’ve watched Army of Darkness on streaming services and it doesn’t seem to suffer from this lack of clarity, so I’m assuming that it’s just a bad transfer on this particular Director’s Cut edition of the DVD. It’s really a shame, because I think the Director’s Cut, with the film’s alternate ending (which is something of an homage to Planet of the Apes) is the superior version of the film, but I just can’t see myself sitting down to watch this particular DVD again anytime soon. I will, however, likely be revisiting this cult classic, along with its predecessors, sometime around Halloween this year, just on a streaming platform. Although my taste for straight horror movies has somewhat diminished, I’ll always enjoy the humorous horror that Raimi offers up here and in his later films, which are equally as good at blending the genres of horror and comedy. I probably enjoy the Evil Dead films a bit more than Army of Darkness, but it’s great in its own right for taking the series in a totally new direction while still maintaining that distinctive early Raimi feeling.

A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Dir. Robert De Niro

Written by: Chazz Palminteri (based on his play)

Starring: Chazz Palminteri, Robert De Niro, Lillo Brancato, Jr.


It surprises me somewhat that A Bronx Tale doesn’t have a bigger following among movie fans. I think that it’s probably well known among people who came of age in the early- and mid-90s, and among big fans of the gangster movie genre, but it’s not a film that I hear very many people talk about. Often as films come up on significant anniversaries, they receive a sort of critical reexamination or reevaluation, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article or think piece written on this film. Maybe it isn’t as remembered because it arrived at a time when there were an unusual number of Hollywood mob movies being released, or because it was sandwiched in between De Niro’s more well-known work in Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino, but I think A Bronx Tale deserves a bit more credit than it seems to get. While it wouldn’t make a list of my favorite gangster movies and I definitely have some problems with the film as a whole, A Bronx Tale is worth a watch because it provides a different take on the typical gangster movie. It isn’t as good a film as the commonly accepted genre classics, but it often rings truer than some of the more touted gangster movies and the obvious care that the cast and crew, particularly Palminteri, have in bringing the story to the screen makes for an entertaining watch.

Based on his one-man show, A Bronx Tale is Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s. The coming of age tale uses Calogero (played early in the film by Francis Capra, and later by Brancato, Jr.) as a surrogate for Palminteri. Calogero is a bus driver’s son, and his father, Lorenzo (De Niro) tries to instill a sense of morality in him and teach him the value of an honest day’s work. However, the boy is drawn to another father figure in the neighborhood, Sonny (Palminteri), the local mafia boss. From Sonny, Calogero learns the art of the hustle, and he begins to learn the complicated code of ethics that exists on the streets, and he earns the nickname Cee. As he grows up, Cee is caught between two worlds, the straight world, peopled by working stiffs (or suckers, as Sonny calls them) like his father, or the more glamorous life of crime and luxury that Sonny represents. To further complicate matters, Cee is coming of age at a time when the Bronx is beginning to change, with racial integration beginning in earnest, so he must also learn to navigate a world that will soon be vastly different than the one that either of his father figures came up in.

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The most compelling thing about the film, unsurprisingly, is Palminteri’s portrayal of Sonny. When he’s first introduced, the audience isn’t given much insight into his character. We first see Sonny as the young Calogero is introducing the neighborhood figures, and he points out Sonny holding court on the street corner, but he appears to be an average mobster. We learn early on that Sonny is capable of delivering lethal violence at the drop of a hat when Calogero witnesses him shoot a man over a dispute over a parking spot. After Calogero clams up and doesn’t identify Sonny as the shooter to the police, he begins to take the boy under his wing and other aspects of his personality begin to emerge. Initially, Cee is a sort of mascot and good luck charm for Sonny, serving drinks to Sonny and the other gangsters, and playing dice. In these scenes, Palminteri plays Sonny with a sense of humor and geniality, but he also gives the character more than a little undercurrent of manipulation, as it seems very apparent that he is grooming Cee for a life of crime despite the objections from Lorenzo. Sonny’s worldview is informed by an Old World code of ethics and respect and a quasi-capitalist dog-eat-dog view of economics where the strong survive by any means necessary and if the weak can’t do for themselves then they’re suckers. Despite this approach to life, however, he is capable of genuine emotion and in the later parts of the film Palminteri reveals Sonny to be a fully nuanced character, as he begins truly mentoring an older Cee. While their relationship is inherently complicated, Sonny’s motivations seem to become clearer towards the end of the film. He sees promise in Cee and tries to steer him in directions that will lead him to have a better, happier life than either Lorenzo or Sonny have had. Usually relegated to supporting or character roles, Palminteri shines as the lead in a role he created for himself. I can’t picture anyone else playing Sonny, and this is definitely Palminteri’s signature role.

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De Niro puts in a good, if unspectacular, performance as Lorenzo, a role which was out of character for him in a period when he was still best known for playing mafia figures and psychopaths. Lorenzo is definitely a supporting role in the film, but De Niro brings a presence to his scenes, creating a worthy foil to the dynamic Sonny. Sparks fly in an early scene that pairs he and Palminteri as Lorenzo furiously returns the money that his son brought home from working at the bar for Sonny. Lorenzo tells Sonny to stay away from his son, and Sonny threatens to hit him, as the two men fight over who should have the bigger influence over the boy. Lorenzo isn’t a violent man but he can’t back down as he tries to protect his family from the influence of the mafia. De Niro plays him as poor but proud, principled and hardworking. As they leave the bar, and the money, Lorenzo explains to Calogero that the only money worth having is money earned justly through work. “It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try to get up every morning, day after day, and work for a living. Let’s see him try that!” he shouts at his crying son, explaining his worldview succinctly. This is probably De Niro’s best scene in the film, rising to the occasion when paired with Palminteri, but the rest of his performance is fairly workmanlike. He’s actually very good in the film, but he doesn’t stand out, nor is he intended to. His steady performance does provide a bedrock for the film, though, and it’s also likely that his focus was diverted due to his responsibilities behind the camera as the director of his first feature.

Like most directorial debuts, A Bronx Tale is a bit hit or miss, but De Niro wasn’t a neophyte to filmmaking, having been one of the most famous and successful actors of the last 20 years. Overall the film is strong, and while it does certainly owe a debt of influence to other mafia films, it has a unique tone and approach to the genre. Visually, the film is reminiscent of early Scorsese, although the camerawork isn’t as virtuosic, but the way De Niro chooses to shoot the neighborhood and the people in it feels familiar. The Bronx, particularly the street corner that houses Sonny’s bar and Cee’s home, becomes a central character in the film. De Niro does some of his best visual storytelling tracking along with cars and up and down the avenues, capturing the essence of the neighborhood. The film also features a great soundtrack, using classics of the 1950s and 60s to establish a sense of place and period. It’s a shame that De Niro often forsakes these obvious strengths in visually and cinematically interesting storytelling for an overreliance on redundant, needlessly expository voiceover. I don’t know if this is another influence of De Niro’s mentor Scorsese or maybe just a lack of confidence in his visual storytelling ability, but the film would be better off without much of its voiceover. Overall, though, De Niro makes strong directorial choices and I’d be interested to have seen him return to this role more frequently, although he’s only directed one other film, 2006’s The Good Shepherd.

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One thing that stood out to me while watching the film again for this post was its somewhat ambivalent treatment of race relations. The film’s second half introduces the topic of neighborhood integration as Cee meets and instantly falls in love with a black classmate, Jane (Taral Hicks), at the same time that his friends from the neighborhood are taking umbrage with the presence of young black men beginning to move into their neighborhood. The film’s depiction of racism is frank and, I’m sure, real for the time period, as name-calling and shouting eventually escalates to physical violence as Cee’s friends attack a group of black teens riding by on bikes. While Cee tries, halfheartedly, for fear of losing face with his friends, to intervene, his friends savagely beat the other teens and then leave them for dead when the police start to show up. Shortly thereafter, Cee is supposed to pick Jane up for a date, but when he meets her, he finds out that her brother was the one who was beaten up by his friends and has told her that Cee was involved. He pleads his case with her but she won’t believe him and leaves, but not before Cee shouts at her brother, calling him the N word. Though the film ultimately supports the interracial relationship of Jane and Cee, and Cee’s racist friends are burned alive in their car, getting comeuppance for their increasingly violent and sadistic actions, that moment where Cee shouts a racial slur is jarring and out of character for him up to that point in the film. It’s meant to be understood that it’s uttered out of frustration, and doesn’t represent Cee’s true character or beliefs, but it’s a real moment and it barely gets acknowledged with Jane’s forgiveness coming too quickly and seeming unwarranted. Overall I think that the film has a positive outlook and message on race relations, and I applaud the frank, realistic depiction of racial tensions, but the resolutions might be just a little too convenient for my taste. That scene keeps sticking out to me as unresolved, but it doesn’t detract from the quality of the film in general.

On the whole, A Bronx Tale is a mixed bag. There’s enough originality to the film to help it stand out from the glut of similar crime movies released around the same time, but the film also wears its primary influences on its sleeve. Palminteri is excellent, and although I’ve always had a problem with Brancato, Jr.’s portrayal of the older Cee, the rest of the cast is very good. There are the building blocks of a better film here, but much of the time, its theatrical roots show through too much and cause the film to feel distinctly uncinematic. When the film tries to get more serious and address social issues, it largely drops the ball, but at least A Bronx Tale doesn’t fall into the same trap of romanticizing Italian racism that I’ve felt from other gangster films, including some classics that I really do love. A Bronx Tale isn’t a forgotten classic or a must see film. It falls squarely in a category of films that I call “hangover cinema,” familiar movies that are good enough to keep one’s attention on television while nursing a hangover on the couch, but not necessarily good enough to pick out off the shelf and watch frequently. It has its flaws, but for fans of the genre, it will be satisfying enough entertainment.


Brick (2005)

Dir. Rian Johnson

Written by: Rian Johnson

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt


Around the time that Brick was released, I really wasn’t watching a whole lot of contemporary movies. In 2006, I was just starting to settle into my life in Pittsburgh, having moved here permanently that fall. I was gearing up for my final few semesters of college, and most of my movie watching was done for classes. At that time, I was watching mostly classics and genre films in school, but I still kept my Netflix account for newer movies. Although I wasn’t using it nearly as frequently as I had been in the first couple of years of college, I still made the time squeeze in movies for pleasure, watching them late at night on a laptop, often with a buzz on. This is how I first experienced Brick: receiving a disc in a little red envelope, watching it somewhat distractedly, and sending it back quickly. It didn’t make a huge impression on me that first time, but I did appreciate its transition of a classic noir narrative to the seemingly more benign setting of a high school. I thought it was a good movie, but I didn’t quite agree with the universal fawning over the film that I had read on most of the film and pop culture websites I was following at the time. However, it stuck around in the back of my head long enough that I eventually picked up a used copy of it at the Exchange a few years later. I’m glad I did because Brick is the sort of movie that rewards close watching and gets better with repeated viewings.

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Brick’s convoluted plot is a classic noir detective story, inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett, and featuring the classic tropes of the gumshoe, the damsel in distress, the femme fatale, and the shadowy underworld figures. Johnson chooses to resituate these familiar elements in a new setting, however, placing his mystery in the sunny setting of a southern California high school. Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is investigating the disappearance of his former girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), who he fears has gotten mixed up in some trouble involving a local drug ring. Brendan is a loner, modeled on the classic noir detective, but he is assisted in his investigation by his friend, the Brain (Matt O’Leary), who helps Brendan track down loose threads and connect the dots in the search for Emily. Brendan is able to arrange a meeting with Emily where she tells him that he has to let her go, and to stop trying to save her, but of course he can’t. Brendan steals a note of Emily’s which leads him to a drainage ditch near the high school where he finds her dead body, and he takes it upon himself to find her murderer. Along the way, he meets Laura (Nora Zehetner), a high school socialite who was friends with Emily and who takes in interest in Brendan, though she may be playing both sides. Laura is also friendly with The Pin (Lukas Haas), a local heroin dealer who Brendan believes may have been involved in Emily’s murder. Brendan is able to infiltrate the Pin’s gang and after doing so he’s able to unravel the mystery of Emily’s murder, but the film forms a tightly wound knot that he must unwind to do so. Brick ends like so many classic noir films, with its detective standing alone, having tracked down the answers he wanted, only to be confronted with whole new questions and problems.

One of the most memorable and immediately conspicuous elements of Brick is its script. The film’s dialogue is anachronistically hard boiled, with its teenaged protagonists spouting rapid-fire line after line of tough talk. At first, the wordiness and odd phrasing of the dialogue can be a little tough to adjust to, but it quickly develops into beautiful, florid prose. Johnson wrote the script (originally conceived of as a novella) as a tribute to the work of Hammett, and he captures that authorial voice perfectly. Inserting period dialogue into a modern setting could have come off as a gimmick or a crutch, but the performances of the young cast sell it as authentic. In fact, the dialogue helps to define and create a unique sense of place in the film, creating a sort of fantasy world that these characters are inhabiting. Although it is very clearly set in the real world and its tone and subject matter are dark, Brick also has the feeling of a teenage fantasy, where the adults have vacated and left the children to their own devices. The dialogue enhances this sense of fantasy, giving the impression that Brendan is playing detective, mimicking his favorite films and pulp novels.

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The other thing that helps make Johnson’s unusual dialogue choices work is Gordon-Levitt’s strong performance as Brendan. He appears in every scene of the movie, and he carries the movie admirably in a breakthrough performance. Aside from just embracing the period dialogue, Gordon-Levitt embodies the noir detective in other ways. He does a good job of portraying Brendan’s mental processes in a physical, observable way. The viewer can see the wheels turning in his head as he and the Brain meet up behind the school to discuss the details of their case. Although Brick uses a flashback structure, the audience is asked to unravel much of the mystery at the same time as Brendan, and watching Gordon-Levitt portray that discovery is part of the film’s appeal. Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan as doggedly persistent, hell-bent in his pursuit of the truth about Emily’s murder. His performance is equal parts verbal, playing the role of both the conman and the wise guy, and physical, though he isn’t necessarily a man of action. His physicality comes more in his ability to portray a kid who can take a beating. As the movie goes on, Gordon-Levitt often adopts a hobbled gait as Brendan’s frequent encounters with school bullies and lowlifes leaves him on the wrong end of a lot of punishment. Johnson often chooses to focus on his feet as he creates a sort of shambolic ballet, seemingly out of control but all the while possessing a dancer’s grace.

Focusing on characters’ feet is just one of the bold stylistic choices that Johnson makes throughout the film. If the film’s script is totally indebted to hardboiled fiction, its visual aesthetic is something far afield from the typical noir aesthetic. For the most part, Johnson trades in the chiaroscuro and cramped interiors of the classic noir for sunny, wide open exteriors. He frequently chooses to frame his subjects in cutaways, focusing on shoes or eyes, but he returns often to long master shots that dwarf the characters against their environment, be it a parking lot, a drainage ditch, or the startlingly empty high school. If the typical noir used its visual aesthetic to present a world closing in on its protagonists, Brick presents us with a world that is wide open, but rather than representing a freeing experience for the film’s characters, that wide open space seems like a challenge too daunting to overcome. Overall, the film has a kinetic visual style, often employing smash cuts and quick zooms and pans to imply violence or narrative action. The decision to tie narrative point-of-view so directly to Brendan also helps to drive tension, as the audience is left in the dark and has to take the ride along with him. There are several zigs and zags along the way to the discovery of Emily’s killer, and many of the film’s revelations are truly shocking, including its pseudo-twist ending.

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If I had any complaint with Brick, it would probably be that, aside from Gordon-Levitt, the rest of the cast isn’t given enough to work with. Obviously, the film is highly tied to Brendan’s point-of-view and his experience of the world, but that is at the detriment of fleshing out the supporting cast. Haas does give a somewhat interesting performance as the Pin, playing the character with a quiet intensity. However, costuming decisions with the character (he wears a cape and has one leg that is significantly shorter than the other) may be more subtly interesting than anything Haas does with the performance. Emilie de Ravin just isn’t in the film very much. She has an early scene with Brendan where she tries to convince him to forget about her, but otherwise she mostly appears in dream sequences as a silent, reanimated corpse. She was doing good work on LOST as a damsel in distress type of character around the same time that Brick was made, but she simply doesn’t get the opportunities in the film to fully flesh out the role. Nora Zehetner’s Laura should be the most interesting supporting character, as she is ostensibly the film’s femme fatale, and her motives are possibly duplicitous from the start, but she is often reduced to pretty screen filler. She helps Brendan with his investigation and hints that she may be doing so because she’s always had her eye on him, but she rarely rises above the trope of the popular girl who wants to manipulate the class oddball. Ultimately, that’s the biggest weakness of the film. Johnson has created a complicated, nuanced character in Brendan, and that character is brought to life by Gordon-Levitt, but the rest of the cast rarely rise above the standard teen movie tropes of the popular girl, the burnout, the jock, etc. It’s a shame because the film offers up a wholly original take on both the teen movie and the noir, only to be largely peopled with cardboard cutouts.

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Overall, though, Brick is a winner. It’s a movie about teens that doesn’t dumb itself down to its audience, instead offering a glimpse into high school life that is artful and fantastical. If you remove the murder from the film, it becomes about a young man trying to come to terms with his girlfriend dumping him and his inability to move on. That’s a relatable subtext for any young person, and it serves as the film’s emotional heart. The bones around that heart are the complex murder mystery that Johnson weaves, and then dresses in the trappings of the film noir. There are a lot of constituent components to Brick, but they ultimately combine to form a film that embraces and elevates its influences. It’s full of subtle allusions to classic films, but it is never derivative thanks to Johnson’s kinetic visual style. The director’s continued stylistic evolution, genre experiments, and knack for storytelling and world building has now landed him a spot helming the next film in the Star Wars saga, but his debut is still probably my favorite film of his. Despite its small budget and relatively unknown cast, Brick had all the indications that its director and star would be on to bigger things very soon.