De Niro battles for the heart of 'Bronx Tale'

October 01, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

A few weeks back my favorite film critic noted that ever young filmmaker in America wanted to be Martin Scorsese. But here's what even that genius didn't know: Robert De Niro wants to be Martin Scorsese.

That, surely, is the impetus behind the curious "A Bronx Tale," in which Scorsese's chief collaborator for three decades moves behind the camera (while still staying in front of it) to film a corrosive tale about young men and wiseguys on the mean streets of a far New York 'hood -- Belmont Avenue, the Bronx, in the '60s.

Yet it's not quite that simple (it never is). There's another consciousness in the act, coming to stand between De Niro and his master, Scorsese. That's Chazz Palminteri, upon whose one-man show the film is based, and who wrote the screenplay.

In short, what we have here appears to be a case of dueling autobiographies. It's fair to ask: Whose life is it, anyway?

Partially, it's a story about a young Italian-American male named Calogero (nicknamed "C") who is tempted by a glamorous life of crime but protected from his own worst instincts by a loving father who offers a role model of decency and responsibility. Surely that's the De Niro part of the story, since the film is dedicated to the memory of De Niro's late father and since De Niro himself plays the father, Lorenzo, a mild-mannered bus driver.

And partially it's a story about a young Italian-American male who is tempted by the glamorous life led by a slick and deadly and oh-so-charismatic mobster, whom he has actually seen kill a man from his own front stoop. So entranced is this young man that he all but abandons his true father for the dark one, a sleek and compelling dazzler, equal parts guts, savvy and style, who is every boy's dream mentor. That's screenwriter Chazz Palminteri's side of the story, for he saw such a shooting once. And who plays this hooded cobra Sonny but . . . Chazz Palminteri.

It'll probably make Palminteri a star. Tall and gangly and by no stretch of the imagination a looker, Palminteri is still a dynamic film figure. In fact, he's so beguiling, so knowledgeable, so in control, that he pretty much short-circuits the wiring of the film: we can't believe anyone would prefer De Niro's homilies to his sleek promise of power and prestige.

The movie is curious rather than good. Palminteri is pretty much the whole show. De Niro's contributions, both as director and as actor, are decidedly bland. His respect for the father figure seems to inhibit him. His performance is strictly idealized into a kind of Italian Ward Cleaver, a Perfect Dad we all wish we'd had but didn't, because nobody did. As a character, Lorenzo lacks edge, the suggestion of power or darkness. He could have been played by Hugh Beaumont. And, equally, De Niro's direction is polite and restrained -- it certainly lacks the dynamics of Scorsese, the gliding sense of showmanship and razzle dazzle. Nothing in this movie says: "You talking to me? You talking to me?"

But to some extent that lack of tension is wired into the script. The conflict between the two fathers -- highlighted in the movie's ad campaign -- isn't really the point of the movie, and it's barely dramatized save but in two scenes. De Niro and Palminteri don't compete either for the boy's soul or for the movie, but more or less co-exist. And their values aren't even in opposition. It proves out that as a substitute father, Palminteri's Sonny is quite a sensible soul. He understands, for example, that the boy -- played as a child by Francis Capra and as an adolescent by Lillo Brancato -- doesn't really have a wiseguy's bones in his body and his counsel is wise and decent, and exactly what his father's would be: go to college, don't hang out with creeps, avoid trouble, walk on the right side of the street.

The real conflict in the picture seems arbitrary. It's in C's mind over the dilemma of race. African-Americans are moving into the Bronx, and his friends are going insane with hatred. Meanwhile, he's falling for a statuesque young black woman named Jane (Taral Hicks). This insertion of melodrama, which builds to a gaudy (and preposterous) blast of violence, however, never feels organic to the material. You're not sure where it comes from or what it signifies, other than providing yet more testimony to Sonny's intelligence, as well as a burst of visual energy the film sorely needs.

"A Bronx Tale" feels studied, rather than felt. It's movie making by the numbers, not from the heart.

"A Bronx Tale"

Starring Robert De Niro and Chazz Palminteri

Directed by Robert De Niro

Released by Savoy

Rated R

** 1/2

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