Raging Directors

If The Age of Innocence is a furtive glance and a knowing smile, -- Bronx Tale is a slap on the back and a sloppy kiss. There's no small irony in the fact that Robert De Niro's directorial debut feels more like a Scorsese picture than the latest Scorsese picture. And the curiosities don't end there. The director is an actor. One of the actors wrote the screenplay based on a real-life crime he witnessed. And De Niro, who made his bones playing charismatic gangsters, portrays a hard-working bus driver, Lorenzo Anello, who battles for his son's loyalties with the local wiseguy. Go figure.

Chazz Palminteri, who plays Sonny, the enigmatic neighborhood racketeer, swears the story is based on a true incident from his childhood. As a young boy growing up in the Bronx in the Sixties, Palminteri witnessed one man shoot another, as does the film's protagonist, Calogero Anello, De Niro's on-screen son. In the movie, unlike real life, the shooter is the local crime boss, Sonny. As the sole witness, Calogero, played by Francis Capra, has the power to put Sonny away, but refuses to identify him. So begins a long relationship between the grateful hood and the streetwise youth that puts Calogero on a collision course with his straight-arrow father, Lorenzo, who would prefer that his son have nothing to do with the flashy criminal.

Once you know the setup, the rest of the story is pretty predictable. Calogero bounces back and forth between his real father and his surrogate one. Eventually the boy must decide whose example to follow. Where -- Bronx Tale is leading is no big surprise. The enjoyment is in getting there, in the subtle shades of character development, the knowing humor, the assured performances.

Palminteri's Sonny is the most sympathetic bad guy to appear on-screen in a long time. It's not that he's soft -- he prefers being feared to being loved because fear lasts longer -- it's just that he's basically fair. And he doesn't seem to really enjoy being a heavy all that much. Too much responsibility. He counsels Calogero -- or C, as he christens the boy -- against following in his footsteps. Better to go to school and learn how to separate suckers from their money legally, he argues.

Sonny's world is populated by an army of Damon Runyon characters. There's Eddie Mush, the luckless gambler whose misfortune is so well-known that the race track gives him his betting tickets already torn up. Or Jo Jo the Whale, a man so huge that legend has it the weight of his shadow once crushed a dog. And there's Phil the Peddler, who goes from threatening to kill the young C if he catches the boy filching fruit from his cart to supplying the teenager with apples and oranges on the outside chance C will put in a good word with Sonny for him.

By contrast, Lorenzo Anello, C's father, leads a pretty mundane existence, driving that damn bus, day in and day out. Lorenzo sees what Sonny's influence is doing to his boy, and he doesn't like it at all. While he would never interfere with Sonny's business for any other reason, he knows no fear when it comes to reclaiming his son's divided loyalty. De Niro's Lorenzo is his best work in at least two years; had he invested this kind of intensity in some of his other recent roles, perhaps Mad Dog and Glory, This Boy's Life, or Night and the City would have been completely different films. Like Woody Allen, another New Yorker whose recent films have been disappointing, De Niro's latest is cause for hope even if it isn't his absolute best.

De Niro the director is a pleasant surprise as well. While not exactly a revelation, A Bronx Tale proves that the honored film star was doing a lot more than resting on his laurels between takes while collaborating with Scorsese in the past. He demonstrates a nice touch for the unexpected comedic twist, and gets some first-rate performances out of unknown actors, not the least of whom is Palminteri. He even exhibits a bit of a knack for the moving camera shot and the smooth integration of a rock soundtrack, a la Scorsese. He's still got a long way to go before he develops a visual flair as distinguished as his mentor's, but at least he's on the right track.

Chalk one up for the student.

The Age of Innocence.
Written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese; directed by Martin Scorsese; with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder.

A Bronx Tale.
Written by Chazz Palminteri; directed by Robert De Niro; with Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, and Lillo Brancato.

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