Robert De Niro debuts as a director with this explosively entertaining film version of Chazz Palminteri’s 1989 off-Broadway hit. Palminteri wrote the play to give himself work as an actor; for inspiration he used his own childhood on the mean streets of the Bronx in the 1960s. Calogero, the kid in the play, has a problem: Does he model himself on bus driver Lorenzo, his hard-working father, or gun-toting Sonny, the local wiseguy?
Onstage, Palminteri played all the parts. Onscreen, De Niro plays the father, and Palminteri is down to one role, Sonny. No matter. Palminteri gives a knockout performance, dodging every gangster cliché to create a sly, funny, thoughtful and recognizably human portrait of a dangerous man. His script, despite sentimental lapses, is equally alert to nuances. And cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos, shooting on location in New York, creates an atmosphere so vivid you can almost smell the spilled beer at Chez Bippy, a hangout for Sonny and his cronies, who have nicknames like Tony Toupée and JoJo the Whale.
How’s De Niro as a director? He’ll get a few raps for aping his pal Martin Scorsese’s work in GoodFellas. He lacks Scorsese’s raw inventiveness, but there’s no denying De Niro’s skill in keeping this pungent street epic brimming over with action and laughs without sacrificing intimacy. He is a supreme director of actors. Francis Capra, who plays Calogero at 9, and Lillo Brancato, who plays him at 17, are sensational newcomers. Taral Hicks, as the black girl Calogero loves, is another find. As the father, De Niro is intensely affecting, recovering from such recent clinkers as Mad Dog and Glory. From the doo-wop sounds on the street to the simmering anger that erupts in racism and violence, A Bronx Tale gets the details right.