A Tale of Two Fathers
Robert De Niro has starred in more than his fair share of gangster movies over the years such as "Casino" and "Goodfellas" so when he decided to make his directional debut it seemed quite natural that he should choose a gangster movie. Although saying that "A Bronx Tale" is not your traditional gangster movie that glorifies the life style of mob bosses but focuses on a teenager influenced by two men, his hard working father and the local mob boss who takes him under his wing. Based on Chazz Palminteri's memoirs, "A Bronx Tale" is more a coming of age movie staged in the world of gangsters during the 1960s and as Robert De Niro's directional debut, it's pretty good.
As a 9 year old Calogero (Francis Capra - Free Willy 2) is fascinated by the gangsters who operate on his street corner, much to the annoyance of his hard working father Lorenzo (Robert De Niro - This Boy's Life). When Calogero witnesses mob boss Sonny (Chazz Palminteri - Noel) committing a murder he decides to obey the rules of the street and refuses to rat on him when questioned by the police. Over the next 8 years Calogero has two fathers in his life, his own who tries to teach him about honesty and the rewards of working hard and then Sonny who having taken him under his wing teaches him about real life on the streets. Now a teenager and his friends getting into all sorts of trouble and racial fights, Calogero (Lillo Brancato) has some big decisions to make.
As already mentioned "A Bronx Tale" is far from your stereotypical gangster movie, in fact despite being set in the work of gangsters it's more of a coming of age tale about a young man who faces making some important life changing choices. In being so it is surprisingly interesting focussing on Calogero or "C" as he is often referred to and the pressures this young man feels from his peers, a bunch of petty wannabe criminals who are more interested in getting into fights over race, whilst also touching on first love and the reality of death. What really makes "A Bronx Tale" work is having the two fathers element each providing opposing advice about life and work but both fathers basically having the young mans best interests at heart.
For a directional debut Robert De Niro does a very good job, drawing on his own experience in gangster movies to capture the mood of the era. From the music through to the locations everything really sets this in the 60s and like other gangster movies it makes you feel like you are there in that time and place. But what is more significant is that De Niro shows great restraint by not over playing the gangster part of the story, he doesn't overly glorify the life of a gangster often showing it for being the life full of fear that it is. He also shows restraint in not including violence just for the sake of it, what there is enhances the storyline; it makes a point and stops short of being just mindless. This allows the focus of the movie to be on Calogero and his journey into manhood, which again De Niro works well making it feel all quite natural.
For the most De Niro does a good job, but I do get a sense that the racial tension part of "A Bronx Tale" is slightly underplayed. I can see why as making this more realistic would have distracted from the focus on Calogero but by doing so it doesn't feel quite right. It's as if the racial element had to be included but no one wanted to really show it how it really was.
Performance wise well Robert De Niro as well as directing also appears as Calogero's hard working father Lorenzo. It's actually quite a nice performance from De Niro as it's not the central focus of the movie and allows him to show a different side to what we usually expect from him in a gangster movie. Alongside De Niro is Chazz Palminteri whose memoirs the movie is based upon. Playing the role of Sonny it is another good performance which shows the character to not just be a stereotypical mob boss. On one hand you have the ruthless side of the character where he will use violence to protect, the sort of side we see in most gangster movies. But then there is another side, the fatherly side which explains to Calogero about life on the streets and the loneliness of being a gangster. It's a very good performance making you actually semi sympathise with a character who normally you wouldn't or at least shouldn't.
But the real stars of "A Bronx Tale" are Francis Capra and Lillo Brancato who play Calogero at various stages in his life. Francis Capra who plays the 9 year old Calogero provides that wonderment of a young child who imitates the gangsters he sees on the street corner and is fascinated by them. But Lillo Brancato who plays Calogero as a 17 year old is the real star and he develops the character showing the confused teenager struggling with the peer pressure from his hoodlum friends, the feelings of first love and basically being stuck between doing what his hard working father wants or following Sonny into a world of being a gangster. It's a sensitive performance from Brancato which allows you to empathise with Calogero as he faces those important decisions, but not to the point that it feels weak.
What this all boils down to is that "A Bronx Tale" is a good movie and as Robert De Niro's directional debut is more than adequate. Whilst it will appeal to those who enjoy the gangster genre of movies the fact that the focus of the movie is a coming of age tale during the 60s will also make it appeal to a wider audience. The performances are all round good with Brancato really standing out. But it is Robert De Niro's control on the movie which is most impressive restraining it from glorifying a life as a gangster whilst showing the less than appealing side of it.