”You did a good thing for a bad man,” is one of the first things that Lorenzo, De Niro’s character in A Bronx Tale, tells his son, Calogero. This is also one of the first moral dilemmas we are presented with as we witness the coming of age of an Italian-American boy in the 1960s Bronx in De Niro’s directorial debut from 1993. What is most remarkable about this personal favorite of mine is how we get to experience, similarly to what I wrote here for Boyz n the Hood, the moral ambiguity of actions that certain characters must take in order to survive in a tough environment. A Bronx Tale is a perfect example of how cinema can be a source of life lessons and how as a medium it can challenge and test the audience through the journey of its characters.
Based on Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play of the same title, A Bronx Tale tells the story of a young boy who must makes sense of his environment through the teachings of two very different men. One being his father, Lorenzo, and the other being the local gangster, Sonny (played by Palminteri himself). The latter takes Calogero under his wing after the boy refuses to testify against him in a murder case as the only witness. That’s when the boy proudly tells his father ”I didn’t rat, Dad. I did good, Dad. I did a good thing. Right, Dad?” and to his surprise Lorenzo gives him an answer that confuses him even more. ”You did a good thing for a bad man.” That seems to be the code on the streets of the Bronx.
De Niro’s character is one of his most fascinating ones and one that I feel doesn’t get talked about enough. In a tribute to his late father, Robert De Niro Sr. who passed away the year this film was released, De Niro delivers one of his most nuanced performances. This is certainly no Raging Bull, Taxi Driver nor Cape Fear, as the actor puts on the clothes of a regular bus driver working minimum-wage, with the sole interest of keeping his family safe and sound and his son away from trouble. But trouble in this part of New York is inevitable for a young boy like Calogero. And De Niro’s Lorenzo knows this. His vision of the world may be limited, he may be old-fashioned and prejudiced (in Lorenzo’s mind Italians should only marry among themselves), but he’s seen his fair share of pain and suffering around him and the movie does a brilliant job of communicating this to us. In a neighborhood of crooks, yes-men and gangsters, Lorenzo is one of the few to go against the tide and follow his own path. When Sonny, as a sign of gratitude for his son’s silence, offers Lorenzo some extra money under the table, Lorenzo does not hesitate in refusing the offer despite that his own wife admits afterwards, ”We could have used some extra money around here.”De Niro’s character is one that we don’t see very often nowadays. Perhaps it’s because he’s not contemporary in his attitude. Or maybe it’s because he’s just not cool enough. And that is also why as the years go by, Calogero finds himself drifting more and more towards Sonny, the king of the streets and as Calogero himself puts it ”My God down here.”
Sonny is indeed the God of the Bronx. Even the local priest does not dare speak against him during confession. Unlike Lorenzo, Sonny oozes coolness and danger. His word is the Bible, and yet despite the prestige and respect that comes with being a boss, he is not the traditional boss we are used to seeing in films. He’s no Vito Corleone. He’s not a stone cold calculating machine. The fear he generates is not through actions but his words and the way he carries himself. His treatment of others is fair. He’s no bully nor psycho. And as we get to know him along with Calogero, his apprentice, we realize we are looking at him through a different lens. Throughout the run-time of the movie it becomes evident that both Lorenzo and Sonny are looked at from the same perspective – that of a father figure. They are put on the same pedestal. Working man and gangster. The lessons they teach Calogero come from different settings – one being the family home, the other being the streets – but they’re just as valuable. When asked whether it is better to be loved or feared, Sonny tells Calogero ”It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love.” Meanwhile, Lorenzo earlier on in the movie points out, ”People don’t love him. They fear him. There is a difference.”
In his directorial debut, De Niro skillfully paints a vivid picture of racial tension, peer pressure and the de facto interlinked paths of fear and love. The world around Calogero is one filled with borders between blacks and whites and where one false move can lead to drastic consequences. Being loved out here is a privilege that not many can afford. But so is being feared. And Calogero can’t seem to find a compromise between the two. The world in A Bronx Tale is a separate world on its own, where rules are different and you best learn them fast. Yet, what is most admirable about the film is how the two characters, Lorenzo and Sonny, work towards the same goal: to keep Calogero away from danger, to keep him mindful of his surroundings. Sonny does it by disrupting the kid’s illusions and telling him that his baseball idol, Mickey Mantle, doesn’t give a shit whether Calogero can afford to pay his rent or not, so why should Calogero care about his batting average? Meanwhile, Lorenzo emphasizes the opposite, namely belief in ideals. His whole mantra revolves around believing in what is right, what is good and what is inspiring to us, as he keeps repeating to his son, ”The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
The two father figures in A Bronx Tale are at first sight polar opposites. The way they think, the way they act and the way they go about life couldn’t be more different. Yet their teachings compliment each other and help Calogero fill in the gaps. That is remarkable. Nowadays movies tend to stick to one train of thought because it is less risky and offers easier answers for the audience to grasp. A Bronx Tale, however, refuses to do so. The movie purposefully confronts Lorenzo and Sonny’s worldviews and makes us reflect on our own convictions and beliefs. The whole secret is finding the balance between the two teachings. Love and fear. Black and white. Working man and gangster.
As the European release of Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, looms over us during these warm summer days, and as the writer-director himself has been generously handing out interviews left and right stating that this may very well be his last cinematic work (it is no secret that Tarantino had always wanted to limit himself to ten features, retire and dedicate the rest of his life to writing about film and for theater), I began reflecting on what I will miss the most about one of the most unique voices to grace the silver screen in the last thirty years. The answer in itself surprised me. As I sat down and rewatched for the sixth time my personal favorite of his, Jackie Brown from 1997, I realized how profoundly Tarantino’s work has resonated with me and my peers for different reasons.
First thing that pops to mind when one thinks of QT is blood. Lots of it. Blood, action and the endless, perfectly colorful dialogue that elevates his movies from simple entertainment to something much more special. Something that has a distinctive ring to it that many have tried and still try to this day to emulate. Yet, nobody has ever come close to perfecting it the way Tarantino has done over the last few years, especially in his recent dialogue-heavy Hateful Eight, where eighty percent of the movie takes place within the confines of one single location, turning the movie into something almost identical to a theater play.
But… blood and dialogue do not work unless you have characters that make you care about those two elements. If you do not care about a character, then his death will not affect you. At the same time, if you do not find the character itself interesting, then why should you care what she or he has to say? That’s what I’ll miss most about Quentin: his characters, and the world they inhabit.
Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s least popular film mainly due to the fact that people like to label it as the least Tarantino film the writer-director has made to date. After all it’s QT’s only adaptation (from Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Rum Punch), how can the characters be his? It seems like a tricky question to answer, yet every time I watch Jackie Brown I find myself completely sucked into a world that can only be described as a world out of Tarantino’s mind. In fact, if a first time viewer were to ask me which Tarantino film he should start from, I would immediately point to Jackie Brown. Not because it’s hip or because I want to be a snob in not recommending the likes of his more popular works such as Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but because I truly believe that the essence of what makes a QT movie so special and vibrant can be found in his 1997 vehicle, where each quality of his is on full display.
Yes, the film can feel slightly constrained when compared to his other movies, perhaps due to the respect Tarantino wanted to show to the source material since there is almost no action involved, little to no blood and zero inaccurate historical reconstructions. You will not find Hitler’s head popping off here, nor will you have to sit through Biblical lines recited by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson as he prepares to execute his next victim, nor will you need to worry about watching characters blow each other to pieces like in Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. Instead, what you will get is exactly what Tarantino considers to be his favorite kind of movie, namely what he calls ”the hang-out” movie.
Characters are the true obsession for QT. By now everyone knows that you do not improvise lines in a Tarantino film as every single line that is on the page has the purpose to support the character speaking those lines. Every line, every monologue or speech is meticulously planned out according to the character’s backstory that only Tarantino himself is aware of. Before ever setting pen to paper, Tarantino envisions each character and the character’s place in what fans like to call Tarantino’s universe. In Jackie Brown, as stated before, this universe is not so clear as it is still Elmore Leonard’s territory. But Tarantino does a brilliant job of merging the two worlds together.
The titular Jackie, played by Pam Grier, was in fact a white chick in the novel. Her storyline and motivations somewhat different from the cinematic middle-aged black woman, once the most beautiful girl on the block, now a tired, heartbroken flight attendant of Cabo airlines, a regular victim of unfriendly circumstances and a simple pawn in the hands of a pimp and arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie is, more than anything else, the defining creation of Tarantino, who puts the novel aside and decides to empower the unlikeliest of protagonists, turning Jackie into a smart con artist, ready to do anything in order to get her revenge on the ones that set out to hurt her. However, unlike Uma Thurman’s sword-swinging Widow from Kill Bill, and well before Melanie Laurent’s ambitious Shoshanna from Inglourious Basterds, she relies on wit rather than physical talent and resilience to reach her objective.
In Django Unchained Tarantino took the chains off a slave’s feet and handed him a rifle to blow the heads off of those that tried to unjustly exert their power over him and his family. In Jackie Brown Tarantino goes against all conventions and gives Pam Grier, the queen of 70s blaxploitation cinema whose stardom had faded away as cinema moved on from the genre in the 80s and 90s, the keys to one of the most intriguing and inspiring female characters in movie history.
James Brown sang ”It’s a man’s man’s man’s world…,” which seems like the soundtrack that Tarantino listened to right before adapting Leonard’s novel because of the environment Jackie has to deal with. And here is where I disagree with most QT critics who argue that Tarantino likes to manipulate his female characters to the extent of reducing their power position (the example that is often pointed out is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight, a character that is violently mistreated, often for laughs, by her male counterparts over most of the movie’s runtime); there is no manipulation in Jackie Brown. Jackie is the one calling the shots. And she is fooling every man that steps in her way.
It’s not a coincidence that the film opens up with the melody of Bobby Womack’s street anthem ”Across 110th Street,” where one of the line reads ”Across 110th Street / Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak.” Grier’s flight attendant is trying to cross that very same street while avoiding the traps set by men like her coke addict ex-husband, the arms dealer she works for (Samuel L. Jackson), his associate (Robert De Niro), an ATF officer investigating her (Michael Keaton) and eventually, the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) that falls in love with her.
Let’s go back to the idea of a ”hang-out movie.” Tarantino has often said his favorite films are films where you just want to hang out with the characters as long as possible, where the viewer experiences a feeling of understanding and thrill with the characters on-screen. The movies he mentioned on numerous occasions to support this argument are two major ensemble pieces: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Both films are characterized by the presence of film stars of great magnitude such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and a sense of camaraderie among these characters. Like most Hollywood movies from that era, the moments you cherish the most in Rio Bravo and The Great Escape are those where all major characters share scenes together and you get to experience the classic star power of that time.
In Jackie Brown, like in most Tarantino films, you get scenes where characters exchange lines of dialogue about regular life and the mundane activities that characterize such life. But they do it so effortlessly that you are immediately transported into another dimension, where the mundane (who can forget the conversation about cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction?) becomes cinematic. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Ordell and his partner, Louis (played by Robert De Niro who is clearly having the time of his life playing a genuine fuck-up) sit in the living room, watching a TV show for gun aficionados and talking about how much money one can make off of selling guns in the US. The atmosphere is so genuine, as well as the conversation, and most importantly, each character fits perfectly the reality that Tarantino has created for them. That is what sets QT apart from every one else.
Think of all the times you told yourself or a friend while exiting a cinema theater, ”I liked the movie but some of the characters just didn’t work for me,” or ”I just couldn’t buy into that character, you know?” That is not the case with Tarantino. His world, and whatever follows afterwards, like the story or the main plot of the film and the twists and turns that happen along the way, are completely dependent on the characters that inhabit it. And even though most characters that appear in QT’s filmography seem to be so over the top (just think of Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous ponytail in Jackie Brown) they remain grounded in the film’s reality and are, oddly enough, fully believable from a viewer’s perspective.
Tarantino’s fetish for weird, over-the-top appearances (did anyone forget the gimp in Pulp Fiction? or Eli Roth’s skull-crushing Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds?) comes with total commitment to the character’s development that include the character’s origins, motivations and flaws.
An example of this in Jackie Brown is De Niro’s character of Louis Garza, a man with an absurd horseshoe moustache who’s just been released from prison for bank robbery. The whole irony of the film works around the fact that Garza is incredibly stupid and has a hard time managing the simplest of things, including hanging up a telephone. Yet, even with the little screen-time this character has, Tarantino paints Garza as a deeply proud criminal who does not tolerate insults (eventually resulting in his downfall) despite his constant shortcomings as the associate to the movie’s main villain. When someone insults his intelligence and questions his criminal record, Louis is genuinely hurt. At each rewatch, I find myself pitying this idiot more and more as I figure he is just having great difficulty adapting to the life of a free man. In other words, even though he appears as this clownish figure, a supporting sidekick meant to deliver the laughs and be the butt of the joke, De Niro’s Garza reveals himself to be a deeply troubled character. This is screenwriting 101.
To end it here, I chose Jackie Brown to make my argument because it is one of the few works by Tarantino that is not wrapped up in some sort of genre (unlike his later work that ranges from martial arts cinema, to war movies and westerns) and thus, allows most viewers to easily grasp the essence of what Tarantino is all about. Despite it being an adaptation of a famous novel, the writer-director and Hollywood native manages to do wonders in terms of character-building. The interactions always feel genuine, the motivations always seem real and instinctive, and the world these characters inhabit is as palpable as they come.
Nobody knows if this is the end of the road for Tarantino. According to his retirement policy he still has one movie left in the tank after the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but just like with the twists in his movies, QT is a bold, unpredictable provocateur. Whatever path he’ll choose, it will make sense. Judging his work has always been difficult, and critics have always found pleasure in targeting his use of language, blood and violence, but despite all of this noise, Tarantino is one of the few people in the business who has remained true to his vision, sometimes even going a little bit over the top (not that it is a surprise by now), and for that, as a viewer, I am extremely grateful. Over the years I have had my own doubts about some of his movies; The Hateful Eight irritated me, Kill Bill annoyed me, Death Proof bored me, Inglourious Basterds rubbed me the wrong way on my first watch, and yet here I am, genuinely saddened at the thought of a cinema deprived of QT’s hang-out movies. If this is Tarantino’s last dance, it’s been groovy.