This is the story of a young boy called C (Lillo Brancato and Franci Capra) and the challenges he faces growing up in a rough New York neighbourhood. He is torn between the straight and narrow tutelage of his father (Robert De Niro) and the quick path to success offered by local crime boss Sonny (Chazz Palminteri), who takes the boy under his wing.
This is the first of only two films directed by De Niro, and while inexperienced behind the camera, his knowledge of New York gangster movies from decades in the spotlight is clear. A Bronx boy himself, this is clearly a project of passion, which shines through the entire film.
At times it feels like it’s trying too hard to be a New York gangster movie, as it makes use of numerous clichés. Having a crime boss called Sonny is a staple of the genre, and other scenes are infused with a strange sense of déjà vu. But there’s no denying the quality on display.
Brancato is excellent as the teenage C, with a passing resemblance to Shia LeBoeuf, except he’s genuinely not famous. De Niro is assured as his father, fitting comfortably into the role as the hard working bus driver, and Chazz Palminteri is also good as rough but appealing crime boss Sonny.
With its childhood beginnings and New York setting it’s very similar to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (in which De Niro also starred), but a very tidied up version, with a neat circularity to it. But both films are in many ways a love letter to the city they feature. Neither shies away from the roughness of New York’s poorer areas, showing the impact such a life can have on youngsters, but they also both reserve a deep respect for the city, and the characters that inhabit it.
It tackles issues of poverty and racism head-on, and examines the cycle of violence that leads to family breakdown and death. And it also has a great bar fight. Made in 1993, this has the look and feel of the classics like The Godfather and Mean Streets. De Niro wisely chooses this aesthetic to capture the feel of the New York he grew up in.
De Niro constructs his film with passion and love, things which are sadly missing from his more recent work. This is a rich and enjoyable gangster film which may not represent a revolution in the genre, but shows De Niro is more than just a great actor.