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.
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.
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.
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.