“I learned something from these two men. I learned to give love and get love unconditionally. You just have to accept people for what they are. And I learned the greatest gift of all: the saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices that you make will shape your life forever.”
Crime dramas have been trying to show the gritty realness of the criminal world since, well, always, but it’s rare to have a crime boss that’s portrayed as a genuinely good person, even one that grows to be a better person by learning how to love more. That formula is not an easy one to execute, but A Bronx Tale managed to do just that. Directed by Robert De Niro (yes, that Robert De Niro) and starring Lillo Brancato, Robert De Niro, and Chazz Palminteri, this is a story about love and family just as much as it’s about crime and brutality, and it balances these two opposite ideas very carefully, even more effectively than the original crime family movie, The Godfather. It does this by showing us not a career criminal or family member, but a boy growing up in the Bronx, learning life lessons from both the local crime boss and his working-man father, who refuses to have anything to do with the criminal world. Seeing this teenage boy try to make sense of the two different worlds he lives in is a big part of the unique charm of this film.
The plot centers on Calogero (or “C,” as he comes to be known), a kid growing up in the Bronx in the 60s. His father, Lorenzo, is dedicated to making an honest, if meager, living as a bus driver. Early on, C gains favor with the neighborhood’s crime boss, Sonny, and Sonny soon takes C under his wing to share with him the life lessons he’s learned in his life. There’s a real tension between Lorenzo and Sonny, but the real conflict is in C deciding which of these two ideologies he wants to follow. There’s also a strong undercurrent of the racial tension from the 60s and how C decides to react to that.
Is it better to be feared or loved?
There are a lot of great crime movies out there; where A Bronx Tale leads is in the emotional side of what it shows us. This movie has heart. This isn’t really a film about the criminal world; it’s a film about growing up, and C has to do a lot of that in this film as he learns to make choices independently from what anyone in his life is telling him to. C has one father figure telling him one thing, and another father figure telling him something completely different, and rather than accept either of these to be 100% true, he takes the truth from each of them and learns to think for himself. Both Lorenzo and Sonny are shown to be genuinely good people with very real flaws. At the same time, C’s friends are shown to have some serious flaws of their own, and C has to decide where he stands among his peers. This ends up being a coming-of-age film as effective as many of the other heavy-hitters in that genre as well.
A Bronx Tale actually began its life as a one-man play in the late 80s. Studios saw the potential in it and scrambled to buy up the movie rights to the play, but the writer—Chazz Palminteri—refused to do so unless he could write the screenplay and star as Sonny. Interest from studios fizzled out when that happened, as they all wanted a bigger star to play Sonny. The break-through for this film was when Robert De Niro showed interest in it. De Niro offered a 50/50 partnership with Palminteri as long as his demands were also met: De Niro wanted to direct the film and play Lorenzo. That was the deal that made this film happen, and De Niro really sought a partnership with Palminteri, involving him in casting, scouting locations, editing, and sound mixing. Ordinarily, people forcing themselves into roles like that would concern me (even though it worked for Rocky), but things worked out really well for this film.
I’ve talked a lot about the emotional aspects of this film, but I’ve also categorized it as a crime film, and A Bronx Tale doesn’t skimp on that. While not as brutal as some of the other films in this genre (I’m looking at you, Scarface), A Bronx Tale has enough violence to remind you that this coming-of-age tale is far removed from other entries like Stand By Me. There’s one particularly bad-ass scene about some bikers in a bar that’s a joy to watch, and the racial tensions lead to some troubling violence later in the film. Whether you’re a big fan of coming-of-age movies or not, A Bronx Tale is anything but boring.
As I said, A Bronx Tale is a crime movie with a big heart, and it bridges the crime genre to the coming-of-age genre better than I thought any movie could. If you’re a fan of one of those genres but not the other, I’d recommend trying this movie out—it might change your mind. There aren’t a lot of other films that attempt this balance, but if you’re looking for movies like A Bronx Tale, two that come to mind are Once Upon a Time in America and City of God. If you’re a big fan of either the crime genre or coming-of-age films, this is absolutely an essential film.
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Director: Robert De Niro
Genres: crime, drama, romance, teen