There is not one false note in Palminteri's performance, and if a hood can have grace, this hood has it.
"A Bronx Tale" is the splendid product of an actor/director without an ego. Robert De Niro plays Lorenzo, a man who protects his family in their third floor walkup and teaches his son how to stay safe in the outside world. This family's outside world is a one block stretch of the Bronx dominated by Sonny, a tall, cool small-time mobster who runs the neighborhood from the local pub.
Although De Niro surfaces from time to time to reaffirm the presence of a loving father, he hands the movie to his son, Calogero, and to Sonny. You can feel director De Niro, hat in hand, taking a deep bow in their direction as he tells them to go for the brass ring.
And they do. Francis Capra is thoroughly appealing as the young Calogero, Lillo Brancato convincing as his older self, but it is Chazz Palminiteri, who steals the show with a dazzling performance as Sonny. He also wrote the screenplay. But let's start at the beginning.
DeNiro opens his movie with a slow, rolling invitation to enter the world of 187th Street. The close harmonies of a doo-wop group pull us slowly toward the bar that serves as Sonny's command post. Two minutes into the film, this world seems absolutely authentic.
When Calogero does Sonny a life-saving good turn, the mobster's personal code kicks in: I owe him one. Shortening Cologero's name to C, Sonny tutors him in the ways of the street while protecting him from its darker side. C now loves a father and a mentor who, despite mutual distrust, give him the same advice in different words: Rise above it, get out, stay alive.
Sonny's unspoken vow to protect C is not an easy one to keep. Eight years later, C falls for a strong, dignified black girl in a world where the Italian and black cultures have moved from suspicion to belligerence. With his father's and Sonny's words ringing in his head, C joins the neighborhood losers for a short, fateful moment.
Chazz Palminteri is both superb and original as Sonny. We, and probably he, know he's small-time. His power derives, as power usually does, from the fact no one knows what he will do next. Will he or won't he? It's the question that makes lackeys of everyone around him. There is not one false note in Palminteri's performance, and if a hood can have grace, this hood has it.
The lone sour note comes near the end when C moralizes about lessons that were delivered with great subtlety throughout the film. Just ignore him, and prepare for the credits. After acting and directing with great restraint, Robert De Niro can barely wait to thank everyone from "Grandma" to "Pizza Parlor." His gratitude is a warm, classy salute to the grand cast of non-professionals who make this movie work so well.
Word Count: 483
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
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