A Bronx Tale is universally beloved among a more casual segment of film lovers, but rarely has its praises sung with more diehard cinephiles.
In recent years, Robert De Niro’s become something of a punchline with his Nicolas Cage-esque tendency to sign on for terrible movies far beneath his talent level. The man is a legend, yet seems content to show up for work on productions that feel like affronts to his legacy. Countless writers have penned think pieces about this curious descent, but few highlight a separate path for him. Why didn’t De Niro, like peers Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood, just transition behind the camera and stick to directing?
A Bronx Tale (1993) is one of only two films De Niro has helmed, the other being 2006’s spy epic The Good Shepherd. While the latter was impressive and ambitious, it was met with mixed reactions and barely made back its bloated budget. By comparison, A Bronx Tale is universally beloved among a more casual segment of film lovers, but rarely has its praises sung with more diehard cinephiles. Taking another look at it 20 years on, it’s astonishing that we didn’t spend the ensuing decades with De Niro the director, rather than the De Niro who had way too much fun making Meet the Parents.
Adapted from Chazz Palminteri’s one man show of the same name, A Bronx Tale is a straightforward coming of age story elevated by incredible performances, sharp characterization and De Niro’s natural gift for directing. The narrative follows a young man named Calogero, at first played by Veronica Mars actor Francis Capra as a child and Lillo Brancato Jr. as a young man, and his tumultuous relationship with dueling father figures, his actual dad, a bus driver named Lorenzo (De Niro) and a local crime boss. It’s a semi-autobiographical affair for Palminteri, who wrote the screenplay himself and stars as Calogero’s gangster idol Sonny, his only two conditions for selling the film rights to his play. On screen, De Niro and Palminteri are opposing influences on the protagonist’s upbringing, but off it, the two actors were a perfect match as storytellers, bonding over this deeply personal project and breathing their own New York City childhoods into the proceedings.
The movie fits into the modern pantheon of beloved gangster pictures, but stands on its own. Following a youth’s growth from wide-eyed stoop dwelling kid to entry level mafia associate places it right alongside Goodfellas. But while Scorsese’s influence on De Niro’s directing style is present, De Niro frames this story as an anti-Goodfellas in a way. Both films ultimately display a “crime doesn’t pay” theme, but A Bronx Tale is far more balanced. Goodfellas shows Henry Hill’s rise and fall, but his rise is lensed with such rapturous glee that it’s the most enduring element of the film.
By contrast, A Bronx Tale feels more like a parable, with its narrative stripped down to Calogero’s perspective and his hometown borough framed like a fairy tale village filled with colorful characters. Palminteri writes Calogero’s voiceover narration with a hamfisted level of detail that could be cloying if it didn’t enhance the story rather than dictate it. De Niro presents a visually driven narrative that would be understandable without any voiceover, but the endless anecdotes about how minor characters got their names and Calogero’s little musings on his inner life enrich the film rather than detract from it.
The movie, like its protagonist, is a product of two dueling ideologies. The general style borrows what Scorsese was so adept at, presenting larger than life street characters with expressionistic framing and editing patterns blended with stylish, period appropriate needle drops. But it’s tempered by a more classical approach, relying on POV shots from Calogero and simple staging, creating a visual representation of the schism between Sonny’s flashy influence and Lorenzo’s sturdy, moral certitude. It works well as a movie that has its cake and eats it, too. Fans of gangster movies in general love it for the aura it captures, but what makes the story function is the foundational dramaturgy beneath the genre trappings.
It’s also, notably, a mobster movie with functional social commentary, as the second half largely concerns itself with Calogero’s interracial romance with Jane (Belly’s Taral Hicks), a black girl from Webster Avenue whose brother is jumped by C’s bigoted friends. While a little too tidy upon revisiting in 2017, the film’s progressive subplots were leagues ahead of the way black and brown people tended to be treated in Italian gangster movies at the time. This love story was a big part of Palminteri’s play, too, but the passion with which Calogero and Jane’s first meet cute is framed is probably connected to De Niro’s well documented love of black women in real life.
The film holds up well, coming off as an assured debut from a director who spent the previous two decades working with some of the best filmmakers on the planet, but in retrospect, it’s sad that the only other time De Niro got behind the camera was for a sprawling espionage thriller whose reach exceeded its grasp. Perhaps in another timeline, director De Niro continued revisiting genres that helped make him famous with a personal lens and a patient eye, crafting a filmography behind the camera as laudable as his onscreen one. Instead, we live here, in the Dirty Grandpa universe.