In the past, the directorial debuts of Hollywood A-listers have traditionally served as an opportunity to make character-driven films which are more intimate in nature and scope (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Ordinary People, Little Man Tate). Even Mel Gibson scaled it back to make the thoughtful and moving The Man Without A Face before going bringing out the bombast with Braveheart.
Robert De Niro’s first venture into the director’s chair also presents an example of an actor choosing to tell a smaller, personal tale, this time in an environment which was (literally) close to home for him.
Written by co-star Chazz Palminteri (who adapted it from his successful off-Broadway one-man play) it’s clear to see why De Niro had an affinity towards this material. Although born in the bohemian Greenwich Village area of New York, the world of A Bronx Tale is familiar territory to the actor, and the influence of his friend and past collaborator Martin Scorsese can be felt too, particularly early on in the film.
De Niro’s use of a vibrant jukebox soundtrack to underscores the mood and emotions in the scenes, and Palminteri’s authentic and intimate narration wouldn’t look out of place in a Scorsese production. Even those same low-level wiseguys are here, sit basking on the street corners and clearly in charge of the area they survey.
One of those minor league hoods, Sonny (Palminteri) makes an indelible impression on a young neighbourhood kid named Calogero (a lovely turn by Francis Capra), much to the frustration of his honest, no-nonsense bus driver father (De Niro). Failing to “rat out” Sonny to the cops after he witnesses him shooting a man, Sonny takes the youngster under his wing, renames him ‘C’ and, much like a teenage Henry Hill in Goodfellas, an initiation of sorts begins where Calogero ends up running errands for Sonny, bringing home a healthy wage for his troubles.
Palminteri’s script deviates from the usual rags-to-riches gangster yarn at this point and sets up those familiar coming-of-age tropes by showing Calogero’s friends as the ones who constantly threaten to lead him astray, while Sonny himself genuinely wants the best for his surrogate son (now being played as a 17-year-old by Lillo Brancato).
If De Niro struggles to carve out a unique directorial style, his own history as an actor and understanding of the craft means he is able to elicit fantastic performances from the two young actors who inhabit the role of his screen son. He also manages to inject a lot of heart into the film, and his own performance as Calogero’s loving and principled father (who is forever trying to drum into his son that the life of the working man is a much more valiant endeavour than that of Sonny’s) is up there with some of his best work.
The film’s f-bomb quota is enough to rival any Scorsese picture, and although it has its fair share of violence (there’s a messy bikers vs. wiseguys bar brawl and an upsetting racist, territorial attack by Calogero’s meat-headed mates) it never feels gratuitous or off-putting, and the material is (rightfully) accessible for an audience closer in age to the young protagonist.
De Niro’s next directorial venture was on a much bigger canvas (the underrated CIA historical epic The Good Shepherd) but tragically, lead actor Brancato is now serving a 10 year sentence for his part in the fatal shooting of an off-duty police officer during a botched burglary. It’s a sad side note that the actor never materialised into a successful adult performer, and instead took the path his character here thankfully negates.
Almost twenty years since its big screen release, A Bronx Tale remains a moving rites of passage tale which more than overcomes its somewhat predictable ending by presenting a tale bathed in a rich nostalgia which remains honest and touching without ever piling on the syrup.
Sadly, there’s very little here apart from a brief promotional documentary created to tie-in with the cinema release and a trailer. It’s a real shame as the film deserves much more.
You can rent the movie on LOVEFiLM here.