Hot Movie Takes – “A Bronx Tale”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
The movie that Robert De Niro made his directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale” (1993), is a highly personal coming-of-age story for both him and its star and writer, Chazz Palminteri. The two men grew up in the era and around the culture the story depicts, which is 1950s Italian-America. Coming-of-age stories don’t usually have the grit this one does, nor do they have the poetic realism this one finds in the clash between two intersecting worlds with radically different values: the legitimate world of working-class people represented by bus driver Lorenzo and the underworld exemplified by mobster Sonny. Caught in the middle of this tug of war is Calogero, the only son of Lorenzo and the apple of Sonny’s eye. As a child Calogero witnesses a crime committed by Sonny that the boy never reveals. Calogero’s silence earns the respect of Sonny, who unwittingly recruits him into the inner sanctum of his Mafia lifestyle as devoted errand boy and worshipful hanger-on.
Though this grooming into that lifestyle hasn’t resulted in Calogero breaking the law yet, Lorenzo sees that it’s only a matter of time. He strongly disapproves of his son being around that criminal element and he fears he’s losing Calogero to the lure of fast, easy money, expensive cars and an above-the-law attitude. He especially resents Sonny practically adopting his son as a junior Wiseguy, although that’s not what Sonny wants for Calogero at all. Indeed, he tells the boy this is not for him. But Lorenzo doesn’t know that. When Lorenzo finally confronts Sonny, he takes a beating for his trouble but the two men have a clear understanding. Lorenzo will never allow his boy to be seduced into that world. Sonny makes it clear he won’t tolerate being threatened again, Both men accept that crossing the line will mean one of their deaths. Meanwhile, Calogero is torn between his loyalties to the two men he loves and must choose between.
Eventually the choice is made for him. It starts when the teen mobster wannabes he also hangs with go too far with their racist attacks against black youths navigating their streets. Calogero has eyes for a black girl he’s met whose brother is savagely beat by his friends. He knows that if his feelings for this girl, Jane, are found out it will brand him as a traitor to his race. In his xenophobic neighborhood, especially among his peers, an interracial romance is taboo and therefore unthinkable, at least in public.
Sonny warns Calogero away from his impulsive buddies and the stubborn kid only narrowly escapes their ill-fated but inevitable demise. Calogero balances the hard life lessons Sonny and his father impart and he comes to realize the enticing gangster world isn’t all that it appeared to be to his once naive eyes.
By the end, Calogero’s learned to see things more clearly, including the high price that The Life brings, and he no longer feels he has to hide his dating Jane.
De Niro and Palminteri know from first-hand experience something of the streets and pressures and culture clashes the film portrays.
The film is an adaptation of a one-man play Palminteri wrote and starred in. It was such a sensation on the stage, first in L.A. and then in New York, that a bidding war for its screen rights broke out. In the end he adapted the play to the screen for De Niro to direct. The story is taken directly from Palminteri’s own life. He was that boy, the son of a bus driver, who fell under the influence of a local made-guy named Sonny.
Palminteri explained it all in an interview:
“I remembered this killing I saw when I was 9 years old. I was sitting on my stoop and this man killed a man right in front of me.”
The killer’s name was Sonny, a mobster who controlled much of the Bronx neighborhood where Palminteri grew up. The police came, but the young boy kept quiet. Soon after Sonny began taking him under his wing.
“He liked me almost as a son, and he wanted me to do good and he wanted me to go to college. But just by being around and who he was, he was a Wiseguy, he was a boss, I was being influenced by all these guys and their cars and their women.”
Just as in the movie, Palminteri’s father told his son the real hero was the working man, not the gangsters.
“He wrote on a little card ‘The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.’ He used to say to me ‘Don’t waste your talent. Make something out of yourself.’ And he put it in my room and I used to see that all the time. You know, Sonny eventually got killed. And I realized that my father was right. So I thought about this whole thing and I said, ‘Gee, you know what? This would make a great story to write what I learned from both men, and how I became a man.'”
De Niro grew up very differently as the son of accomplished artists and creatives but his life skirted some rougher aspects and he certainly knows well the territory and hazards of interracial relationships.
“A Bronx Tale” is now a musical and in an interview Palminteri said of the story’s enduring appeal across different media and genres and cultures, “I’ve done 60 movies, and people just love A Bronx Tale. It’s strange. Not just here in America, but everywhere—Japan, Europe. I don’t understand it. It touched a chord with a lot of people. I guess what I wrote was archetypes. It’s about so many things, about being the best of who you are. It’s about choices. And the story has just connected to people for so long.”
De Niro explained it this way: “It’s kind of a morality story. It’s got a simple story in a way. It has that kind of timelessness to it.”
As a director, De Niro shows a sure hand with his actors and keeps the story moving along. Whatever he gleaned from Francis Fork Coppola, Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese in acting in their mob-themed movies, he uses to great subtle effect here as he doesn’t make his own take on that world derivative or half-hearted, but rather orginal and full-blooded.
“A Bronx Tale” also stands as one of De Niro’s best performances. As brilliant as he is in showier roles, I like him best playing average Joes like this. Palminteri has never been better than he is here. Francis Capra as the 9 year-old Calogero and Lillo Brancato as the 17-year-old Calogero are both very good. Brancato infamously ran afoul of the law in real life and served a long prison term. Taral Hicks is dreamy as Jane and it’s shame we haven’t seen more of her over the years. Joe Pesci has a small but vital role at the end that he handles extremely well in adding a final grace note to the story.
I can definitely see how “A Bronx Tale” could work as a musical and I hope a touring production of it makes it here one day or else a local theater company puts on its own production of it.
Hot Movie Takes – “The Bronx Bull”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
1980’s “Raging Bull” is a great film that captures the demons of boxing legend Jake LaMotta through stylized filmmaking expressing the state of this complex figure’s tortured soul. Until I found it on Netflix the other night I didn’t know that a new filmic interpretation of LaMotta came out in 2016 – “The Bronx Bull.” While it’s not on the same level as the Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro classic, it’s a good film that takes a less arty and more traditional look at those demons that made LaMotta such a ferocious fighter and haunted man.
Veteran character actor William Forsythe plays the older adult LaMotta and delivers a stellar performance that in many ways has as much or more depth as De Niro’s famous turn as LaMotta. Don’t get me wrong, De Niro’s work in “Raging Bull” is one of cinema’s great acting tour de forces for its compelling physical and emotional dimensions. but Forsythe gives perhaps a more subtle and reality grounded performance. In this telling of the LaMotta tale, the violence of his character is rooted in a Dickensian growing up that saw him abused and exploited by his own father. We are asked to accept that LaMotta was the way he was both inside and outside the ring because he had basic issues with rejection and abandonment. And he can’t forgive himself for apparently killing a fellow youth in a back alley fistfight for pay. Reality might be more complex than that, but these are as plausible explanations as any for what made LaMotta such a beast and Forsythe draws from that well of hurt to create a very believable flesh and blood man desperate for love and forgiveness.
There’s a lot of really good actors in “The Bronx Bull” and while the writing and directing by Martin Guigui doesn’t always do them justice, it’s great to see all this talent working together: Paul Sorvino, Joe Mantegna, Tom Sizemore, Ray Wise, Robert Davi, Natasja Henstridge, Penelope Ann Miller, Cloris Leachman, Bruce Davison, Harry Hamlin and James Russo.
Mojean Aria is just okay as the very young LaMotta. I think a more dynamic actor would have helped. Then again, the young LaMotta is not given many moments to explain himself or his world. That’s left to his cruel father, well-played by Sorvino. But this is Forsythe’s film and he’s more than up to the task of carrying it. Whenever he’s on screen, he fully inhabits LaMotta as a force of nature to be reckoned with. Forsythe very smartly stays away from a characterization that’s anything like what De Niro did in “Raging Bull.” Forsythe finds his own way into LaMotta and pulls out some very human, very tender things to go along with the legendary rage. The trouble with the film though is that writer-director Guigui sometimes apes “Raging Bull’s” style, either consciously or unconsciously, especially in some of the scenes inside the ring and in the way he handles the Mob characters, and since he’s no Martin Scorsese, those scenes don’t measure up.
Any story about professional boxing set in the 1940s and 1950s, as this one is, must deal with the Mob, which controlled the upper levels of prizefighting in this country in that period. This story doesn’t so much go into what Mob influence looked like during LaMotta’s career as it does what it looked like after he hung up the gloves. That said, the movie begins with a retired LaMotta testifying before a U.S. Senate sub-committee on how the Mafia ordered him to throw a fight and how he did what he had to do to get the title shot he craved. The story then picks up on how what LaMotta always feared – the Mob getting their hooks in and not letting go – catches up with him years later.
Tom Sizemore is pretty good as one Wiseguy but Mike Starr wears out his welcome playing the same kind of bungling Wiseguy he’s played in one too many pictures. In a very brief but telling scene Robert Davi is superb as a character who appears almost as a ghost to LaMotta. Natasja Henstridge is every bit as good as Sally as Cathy Moriarty was as Vickie in “Raging Bull,” and that’s saying something. After a strong opening, Penelope Ann Miller’s character of Debbie is mishandled. Debbie and LaMotta make an unlikely but interesting pairing and then she’s almost dismissed as irrelevant when she begins to tire of his antics and he’s once again threatened by rejection and abandonment. As Debbie’s mother, Cloris Leachman is fine but she’s basically reduced to being a cliche.
Joe Mantegna is a good actor and his character of Rick is compelling at the start but by the end he seems to be there more as a plot-point device than as a real figure and by then he’s frankly irritating.
According to this telling of the LaMotta story, the fighter and those close to him paid a high price for his deep reservoir of insecurity but through all the hell he put himself and others through he did eventually find peace and atonement. In the end, I wanted it and bought it, too.
This is not a great film and not even a great boxing film but you may well find it worth your time. It’s title got me thinking about a much better film with the name Bronx in it – “A Bronx Tale,” the first movie Robert De Niro directed and the project that made its writer and star, Chazz Palminteri, a star. It’s the subject of my next Hot Movie Take.