A Bronx Tale was originally conceived and performed by screenwriter Chazz Palminteri as a one-man show, which must be why all the film’s characters seem to speak with the same voice. Robert De Niro’s directorial debut, in which he also co-stars, finds De Niro the actor in familiar territory—among the menacing yet world-wise gangsters and “tough guys” who rule a Bronx neighborhood—and De Niro the director unable to enliven a exceptionally prosaic tale whose shortcomings have almost certainly been emphasized rather than resolved by cinematic interpretation.
After 9-year-old Calogero witnesses a murder in front of his house, the “mind your own business” ethos of his neighborhood keeps him from identifying the killer, local hood Sonny (Palminteri), for the police. The boy’s father (De Niro), is a bus driver who resents Calogero’s burgeoning hero-worship of the flashy mobster. But Dad’s efforts to stifle their friendship are to no avail: By the time Calogero, rechristened “Cee” by Sonny, is a teen-ager, he’s poised precariously between the ways of life represented by his dual role models. Unnervingly, the film’s narration—delivered by its youthful protagonist—and the preteen Cee’s resemblance to Fred Savage makes its first half play like The Wonder Years without the jokes.
But the jokes eventually appear in the wake of an unconvincing subplot. Into young Cee’s already heated moral tussle between the integrity of hard work and the lure of easy money comes another major issue (which makes for one too many major issues for the film’s wobbly infrastructure to support): He falls in love with a black girl (Taral Hicks). The filmmakers play this development for laughs, but not consistently, which makes Bronx resemble an awkward amalgam of Jungle Fever and Hairspray. Amid an atmosphere of growing racial tension, that the Moody Blues provide the KKK reference as Cee’s friends beat up a group of black bicyclists to the strains of “Knights in White Satin” is more ludicrous than profound. No less dubious is the scene in which Cee’s new girl delivers a variation on Paul Hogan’s “this is a knife” one-upmanship gag from Crocodile Dundee as the pair are kissing.
As it happens, it’s Sonny who emerges as the film’s sole proponent of racial tolerance. This is not the only arena in which the gangster comes off as more enlightened than dear old Dad: After all, Sonny’s not just a killer, he’s a thinker who ponders Machiavelli. Bronx‘s undoing is that it takes generally accepted societal values for granted. We are evidently meant to understand that hard work is a good thing and that crime doesn’t pay, even when the film suggests otherwise. When Sonny gets his comeuppance, it seems perfunctory indeed. Though its moral is clearly intended to be the opposite, Bronx is almost an unwitting testimonial to Sonny’s maxim—“the working man is a sucker.”
The phrase “what I really want to do is direct” must be resounding through the streets of Hollywood these days. And like De Niro’s A Bronx Tale, Morgan Freeman’s Bopha! is competent but unexceptional, though its father and son tug-of-war has more emotional resonance—not least because Bopha!‘s generational conflict is just that, whereas A Bronx Tale simply confirms that father knows best.
In Bopha!, which was adapted from Percy Mtwa’s play, Micah Mangena (Danny Glover) is an officer in the South African Police force, and his teen-age son, Zweli (Maynard Eziashi), is a nascent anti-apartheid activist. Micah has made a career of carrying out the mandates of apartheid, and refers to his force without irony as “the pride of South Africa.” But as political unrest begins to make itself felt in their fictional early-’80s township, his role as enforcer is increasingly called into question. Of course, unlike Bronx‘s dad, Micah’s version of “playing by the rules” leaves him morally compromised, but Bopha! makes a modestly effective case for Micah as a man doing the best he can to provide for his family under difficult conditions.
His son’s activism nudges Micah into a grudging awareness of his own collusion with the oppressors, who range from Micah’s sympathetic but irresolute boss Van Tonder (Marius Weyers) to his wholly unprincipled boss from “the Special Branch,” De Villiers (Malcolm McDowell). The pair engages in what amounts to an extended point/counterpoint on the role of white South Africans. Yet even the film’s most reasonable whites aren’t all that reasonable. Though it is Micah’s wife, Rosie (Alfre Woodard), who works as a maid, Van Tonder treats Micah as one by reminding him to make sure “the grounds are tidy” while he’s on duty. In a film about oppression, it is remarkable that Bopha! doesn’t use its potentially provocative female characters to greater effect. Neither Rosie nor Zweli’s girlfriend—both of whom are victims of a society in which they have little control—prompts a closer look at the plight of black South African women.
It is only after Zweli and his classmates rebel against being forced to speak Afrikaans rather than English in school that Micah is able to learn from his son. To the film’s credit, he does this neither quickly nor painlessly, but that doesn’t mean Bopha! is chock-full of thematic surprises—it isn’t; this is familiar material dealt a familiar treatment. Appropriately if disappointingly in a film exploring racially based political issues, its conflicts are all drawn in black and white. So much so that it is hardly necessary for the film to clarify its position by incessantly focusing on the police-force acronym on the shoulder of Micah’s uniform that literally spells out its simple theme—S.A.P.