Among the many classics of the ’90s and the various gangster films we all know and love, A Bronx Tale stands out for its powerful and thought-provoking story. It just happens to be one of the best gangster films I’ve seen. It’s a simple film, but that’s the beauty of it.
Set in the 1960s, Robert DiNero plays Lorenzo, a hardworking bus driver who wants the best life for his wife and young son Calogero. Lorenzo is proud to be a working man, yet his nine-year-old son is attracted to the power and wealth of local mob boss Sonny (Chazz Palminteri). Calogero grows up in a rough neighbourhood in the Bronx. The film chronicles his youth from childhood to adolescence, as Sonny takes him under his wing, while Lorenzo struggles to guide his son down the right path.
In DiNero’s directional debut, you can tell he was clearly paying attention to all those films he made with Martin Scorsese. The visual style, dialogue and particularly the opening scene, bears a clear resemblance to Goodfellas. However, DiNero steers a different course in his film. Here he applies more emotion, life lessons and better characterisation.
This film doesn’t quite beat Goodfellas for entertainment, but you get more attached to the characters. You get involved with Calogero and his friends, who hang out in the streets and are fascinated by the local gangsters. DiNero finely captures every detail of the Bronx and you don’t need to have visited the place to believe in and care for this tight-knit neighbourhood. The voice-over by Calogero brings you even closer to the community.
The second half is in 1968 and although Calegaro has grown-up, his town has stayed the same, still hectic and violent. Not to mention that Lorenzo and Sonny still play tug of war with the heart and mind of Calogero.
Their battle for the boy is dramatic and well realised. It’s something I haven’t seen before in a gangster film. And to be honest, the crime-gangster plot serves more as a backdrop for the coming-of-age story, which is about humility and making the right choices in life. What is it going to take for Calogero to finally ditch his friends, who are a bad influence on him? When will he realise that a life of crime is not the one he should lead? Lilo Brancato (who plays the older version of Calogero) is a revelation, a great casting by DeNiro.
Amid crime and crafty hustlers, there is no main bad guy. Sonny is the most likeable gangster I have ever seen in cinema. For a mob boss, he shows a surprising amount of compassion. Yes, he’s rough around the edges and if you mess with him, you’ll pay the price – but he never directly goes looking for trouble. DiNero and the writer of this film could have easily made Sonny a psycho. So, his stripped-down nature is a refreshing change for the genre. It works well for the context of the story, placing the focus purely on Calogero’s journey.
There are so many compelling characters in A Bronx Tale. The story and attitudes of the community feel real, but I think the racial divide it presents is a bit of an exaggeration. Did the racial conflicts of that time period really happen in such an open, out of control manner? I can’t imagine it did. This is only a minor piece of criticism in an otherwise hugely enjoyable film.
A tough, gritty, surprisingly sentimental film that makes a long lasting impression. I recommend A Bronx Tale to anyone, not just mobster fans. It’s definitely up there with the greats.
Quoted: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
Director: Robert DiNero
Writer: Chazz Palminteri
Stars: DiNero, Palminteri, Lilo Brancato
Distributor: Savoy Pictures
Run Time: 121 minutes
What’s the best gangster film you’ve ever seen? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!