Paul Castellano could have been a stand-up, sensitive kind of guy -- if only he'd gotten into a different line of work. He'd also still be with us today, if only he'd paid more attention to "The Godfather."
Those seem to be the two main lessons of "Boss of Bosses," in which Chazz Palminteri (a good actor who seems doomed to playing Mafia types his entire career) portrays Castellano, head of the Gambino crime family until a young turk named John Gotti decided he could run things better.
Nine or 10 gunshots later (the movie appears unsure exactly how many), Castellano lie dead outside New York's Sparks Steak House.
That's why a working knowledge of "The Godfather" would have helped Castellano immeasurably. Among the many lessons of that great film is this: If you pull up to a building your bodyguards are supposed to be surrounding, and they're nowhere to be seen, keep driving. Michael Corleone knew that, and thus saved his father Vito's life.
But that little episode, ironic and amusing as it might seem, is the least of this movie's problems.
The bill of goods director Dwight Little ("Murder at 1600") and screenwriter Jere Cunningham ("The Heist") are selling features a mob boss with a lot of brains, enough brawn to get by, and a sensitive side that no one fully appreciated -- a guy so good, so deep-down-inside decent, that he gets misty-eyed at the site of his beautiful Colombian maid going for a midnight dip in the family pool, and decides to make her his mistress.
Yeah, whatta guy.
After the opening fusillade, the film flashes back for a few brief minutes to 1933 Brooklyn, where we see the beginnings of both Castellano's life of crime and his underlying decency.
From running a numbers game at his father's butcher shop, the young Paulie impresses local crime boss Vito Genovese by 1) whacking some guys on the kneecaps and skulls with baseball bats (and boy does he look sad when he actually kills one), and 2) taking the Christmas trees these guys were selling and giving them away to neighborhood families.
Move forward 50 years or so, and our (anti-)hero has risen steadily in the ranks.
When big boss Carlo Gambino is on his deathbed, he anoints Castellano as his successor ("I got you into this thing of ours, and now I'm gonna make it worse," the dying don explains).
The new godfather is surprised, but not flummoxed. Moving quickly, he sets his own agenda, which involves making the family business as legit as possible ("From now on," he intones, "our way will be the business way."), steers clear of the drug trade (anyone who traffics in drugs gets offed immediately, he warns) and tries to persuade the eager young guns around him that slow and steady will win the race.
Gotti, of course, famously disagrees. Having seen the opening of the film, we all know where this is headed.(In real life, Gotti eventually was sent to prison for ordering Castellano's murder.)
If all this sounds pretty simplistic and not riveting, then I've done my job. Castellano's "sensitivity" is depicted by his nightmares, by having him cancel a contract on a mob informant, and by his relationship with the maid, Gloria (Angela Alvarado Olarte).
Want an idea of how tender this romance is? When Gloria tearfully recounts the horrors of being raped back in Bogata, Castellano's response is, "Gloria, we're all violated, all of us."
Palminteri is a fine actor, and the scenes with his cronies evoke an old-world camaraderie that's fun to watch.
But even he can't turn Paul Castellano into a heckuva guy -- or overcome dialogue this banal.
`Boss of Bosses'
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow; repeats at 10 p.m. and midnight
In brief: A mob boss is recast as a sweet and sensitive Mafiosa.