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The saddest thing in the world is wasted talent.—Lorenzo Anello
What a time it was. The Yankees were playing the Pirates in the World Series... and Mickey Mantle was like a god to me. My dad and I would go to Yankee Stadium and see the Yankees win.—Calogero, speaking part of the opening narration
A touching, heartbreaking coming of age story... with gangsters. Bear with me, it's way better than it sounds from that first line.
The story begins in the Bronx, (a borough of New York City) in 1960. The main character is Calogero Anello, the nine year old son of Lorenzo Anello, (played by Robert De Niro) a poor Italian immigrant who drives a bus in New York's mass transit system for a living. This lets the Anello family scratch out a living, but although Calogero loves his father and is treated to sermons from his father about both how to live an honest life and how "the saddest thing in life is wasted talent," the man Calogero really admires is Sonny LoSpecchio, the tough and intelligent mobster who runs the neighborhood and is rapidly shooting up the ranks of The Mafia.
Naturally, both of Calogero's parents disapprove of this, (especially his painfully honest, straight living father) but nothing they do can stop Calogero's fascination with Sonny, the other neighborhood mobsters, or their hangout bar, which is just a couple of places down the street from his own house. Still, Sonny never notices Calogero or the other neighborhood boys that imitate the gangster... until the day when two men pulling into a parking space at the same time get into a fight, one of them pulls out a bat and attacks the other with it, and Sonny shoots the bat wielding assailant... right in front of young Calogero.
Following the street ethics of his neighborhood, Calogero lies to the police and refuses to identify Sonny as the shooter. A grateful Sonny asks to meet Calogero, and quickly takes a liking to the kid, and soon begins to take him under his wing and treat Calogero like a son, including giving him the nickname C. It isn't long before Sonny and Lorenzo have a tense confrontation about C's time hanging out with Sonny, as Lorenzo fears that it will influence C into embracing the mob lifestyle. Following this a wary truce begins, with both Lorenzo and Sonny influencing and guiding C into adulthood.
Fast forward 8 years. Lorenzo is still driving a bus for the city, Sonny is now a boss, and C is 17 and has spent nearly half his life reaping the benefits of being, for all intents and purposes, like an adopted son to Sonny. In the meantime C's relationship with his father is growing ever more strained, especially as C continues to admire Sonny and soak up input from his friends that have formed their own "social club" and act like a minor league mafia. What's more, C's friends are in the middle of starting a mini race war with the black teenagers from the next neighborhood over. This is something C wants no part of, since 1) both his father and Sonny are fairly tolerant people and have passed that along to him (although Lorenzo, like many conservative immigrants, takes a somewhat dim view of marrying or having a relationship with members of other ethnic groups) and 2) C is in the middle of falling for a black classmate, Jane Williams.
Soon events are racing to a head. Jane's brother Willie is one of a group of black kids assaulted by C's friends just for riding through the Italian neighborhood on their bikes, and although C doesn't take any part in the beating, Willie identifies him from the scene. C's relationship with his father is unraveling fast, and strange little things are happening around Sonny, making him increasingly paranoid about attempts on his life, including finding something on the engine of his car after C borrowed it, which leaves him suspecting C is part of an assassination attempt. As all these threads come together and the film heads for a climax, Calogero must start making some tough choices about his life, and try to deal with events that will leave most of the characters changed, and more than a few dead...
This film contains examples of:
- Acceptable Breaks From Reality: Many a New Yorker got a long, dark laugh from the police banging on the Anello's door within seconds of the shooting. However, since waiting hours for them to show up doesn't make for riveting film...
- Adaptation Expansion: Chazz Palminteri, (who plays Sonny) originally wrote this as a one man play, and still performs it at times.
- All Bikers Are Hells Angels: Justified in this case, as that's what the motorcycle toughs actually are.
- Arc Words: The saddest thing in the world is wasted talent.
- As Himself: The guy playing Eddie Mush, the unlucky jinx who always loses bets, was Eddie Montanaro the real-life version. True to form, on the first day he showed up on the set, it rained.
- Ax Crazy: C's friend Mario, who is even called Crazy Mario in the neighborhood.
Sonny: Mario? Mario's a psychopath. Why do you even listen to that kid?!
- Badass Bookworm: Sonny. Badass enough to be a Mafia boss, bookworm enough to read Machiavelli in jail.
- Bad Guy Bar
- Berserk Button: Don't mess with C or try to be a bad influence to him. Sonny will make you pay.
- Big Applesauce
- Big No: Calegero when he sees Sonny getting whacked.
- Bittersweet Ending: Calogero makes peace with his dad and finally starts using his head to think for himself, but his friends are all dead, Sonny has been shot and killed and his relationship with Jane is uncertain.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: A classic example from young Calogero: "It has been one month since my last confession, and these are my sins: I missed Sunday Mass twice... I lied about witnessing a murder once. I ate meat on Friday..." Priest: "Wait. Can you back up a bit?"
- The Cameo: Joe Pesci makes one in one of the very last scenes of the movie as Carmine. AKA the guy who was getting hit with the bat in that fight. Surprisingly his trademark Hair-Trigger Temper is absent in this character.
- Catch Phrase: Two stand out: Lorenzo's "The saddest thing in the world is wasted talent", and Sonny's "Nobody cares".
- Cluster F-Bomb: a whole lot of dialogue, especially Sonny's.
- Coming of Age Story: Although it is almost always mislabeled as a Gangster flick.
- Covers Always Lie & Never Trust a Trailer: Both the VHS/DVD cover and the trailer overplay the Sonny/Lorenzo conflict, and make it seem like the entire film is a face to face confrontation between the two. They share two scenes, and one of those lasts about 30 seconds. Calogero also notes that his father and Sonny never spoke once during the Time Skip.
- Curb Stomp Battle: Sonny's gang versus the bikers.
- Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: C thinks so from what he sees, despite Sonny's attempts to convince him otherwise.
Sonny: First of all, I respect you, Lorenzo, you're a stand-up guy and we're from the same neighbourhood, but don't ever talk to me like that again. I tell your kid to go to school, to go to college...
Lorenzo: You don't understand: it's not what you say, it's what he sees, the clothes, the cars, the money, it's everything.
- Deadpan Snarker: The young Calogero shows signs of this. The teenage C, not so much.
Lorenzo: You stay away from that bar. You don't see me going to the bar do you?
Young Calogero: You mean Mom wont let you go either?
Lorenzo: What am I gonna do with this kid?
- Do Not Call Me Paul: Calogero gets the nickname "C" from Sonny and ends up being called that by everyone, except his father, who will not do it.
- And Jane, who likes "Calogero" better.
- The Dragon: Jimmy Whispers to Sonny.
- The Fifties: The Bronx is still in the thick of this era in 1960, and elements of it linger all the way to 1968. (For one thing, doo-wop on the street corners remains popular.)
- First Kiss: C apparently does one with Jane. She just smiles, and tells him that was not a real kiss, then plants a real one on him.
- Gang of Hats: Mario and the other neighborhood delinquents are a literal example.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: C's friends are killed by a Catch and Return of their own Molotov Cocktail.
- Holding Hands: C tries to go for this awfully quickly...
- Honor Before Reason: Lorenzo refuses any money from Sonny, even low-risk "nobody gets hurt" jobs that Sonny offers him out of gratitude for Calogero keeping quiet, and does not even want Calogero hanging out with Sonny.
- Hypocritical Heartwarming: Sonny's lecture to Calogero about guns and gangsters. "Don't do what I do... This is not for you."
- Love At First Sight: Or at least crush at first sight.
- Machiavelli Was Wrong: Sonny seems to be one of he only movie villains who actually understands Machiavelli and the advice he gave. Sonny read The Prince in prison and takes its lessons to heart: Be feared, but not hated, treat your men well, but not so well they do not need you, it is best to loved and feared at the same time, but is very difficult to do it, etc. Sonny and C openly discuss the question of whether it is better to be feared or loved. The way Sonny smiles when C asks the question shows how much he likes the kid. However, the film explores potential problems with Machiavelli's advice. Most notably, Sonny staying close to the neighborhood does work, but it also makes it easy for someone to walk up to him in a crowded bar and shoot him in the head.
- Sonny's advice would have worked perfectly if nobody hated him. Unfortunately for him, killing people tends to inspire their next of kin to seek revenge.
HeroicMafia Wannabes: It is painfully obvious, particularly to Sonny, that the teenage C and his friends are third rate wannabes. C is simply not cut out for a street life, and his friends are dumb punks trying way too hard. Sonny describes them as "Jerk-offs. And Slick is the biggest jerk-off."
- Maligned Mixed Dating: And during the racial unrest of the late 1960s, no less.
- "Mister Sandman" Sequence: The Bronx, 1960. Working-class joes play stickball in the street to a seemingly never-ending doo-wop soundtrack.
- Molotov Cocktail
- Neighbourhood Friendly Gangsters: If you watch closely (or enough times) you can see that while Sonny is a legit case, there is something of a deconstruction going on with the rest of Sonny's crew. Most of them are either losers or violent guys being held on a leash by Sonny.
- Never Lend to a Friend: Explored. When C vents about the guy he lent money to always avoiding him and not paying him back, Sonny asks him if C even likes the guy he lent to. When C says no, Sonny shrugs and replies that it is no big deal because, since the other guy keeps avoiding him, C will never have to deal with that guy again and got rid of him with just $20.
- Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: The movie manages to plausibly package together gangsters, soul brothas, and (in one scene) Hell's Angels.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Several, with Sonny's crew beating the crap out of the disrespectful bikers and C's friends beating up the black kids being the most notable.
- Not So Different: The black teens are nearly as bad and racist as the punks C hangs out with.
- Lorenzo and Sonny, despite being on opposite ends of the social hierarchy, both want what is best for Calogero: a good education, and not to be corrupted by gangs. Leads to some inevitable Hypocritical Heartwarming on Sonny's part: "Don't do what I do."
- Nothing but Hits: Leading to several instances of Soundtrack Dissonance.
- N-Word Privileges: C does not have them.
- He never believed he had them. He was just angry at the moment.
- Oh Crap. Some bikers start messing up Sonny's bar. He asks them to leave. They refuse. This is what happens next.
Sonny: [walks over to the door, locks it, locking the bikers inside] Now youse can't leave.
Calogero: [narrating] I will never forget the look on their faces. All eight of them. Their faces dropped. All their courage and strength was drained right from their bodies. They had reputation for breaking up bars, but they knew that instant, they'd made a fatal mistake. This time they walked into the wrong bar. [Sonny's crew comes out of the back of the bar and beats the crap out of the bikers]
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Count the number of times you hear C explain, "They called him [X] because..."
- Only Sane Boy: Calogero is by far the most level-headed person in his peer group, most obviously shown in the scene where one of his friends lights a cigarette in a car full of Molotov cocktails. And Calogero still isn't sane enough to get out of that car until Sonny accosts them and forces the issue.
- Opposed Mentors: A kid called Calogero growing up under the conflicting influences of his hard-working, honest, but poor father, and the charismatic, rich and powerful, Affably Evil local mafia don Sonny.
- Politically-Correct History: Mostly averted, although Sonny is surprisingly tolerant and open minded.
- Pragmatic Villainy: Sonny exhibits this a number of times, and is frustrated that no one else seems to catch on to the importance of it.
- One example is that Sonny was the only one who was willing to do business with the Black Gangs, while the more racist mobsters want nothing to do with them.
- Red Right Hand: Coffeecake.
- Salt and Pepper
- Secret Test of Character: Both Mario and Sonny propose ways to test a girl's character and see if she is the right girl. Sonny's is slightly more reasonable and rather less... psychotic.
Sonny: You pick her up [in your car], open the door for her, let her get in. Then you go around the back and look through the rear window. If she doesn't reach over and unlock your side so you can get in, then it means that she's a selfish broad and what you've seen is just the tip of the iceberg. Dump her.
- Jane passes the test.
- The Sixties: Exemplified by hippie bikers and soul music (in 1968). And the racial unrest...
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Several scenes of brutal violence are overlaid with tracks like "Knights in White Satin".
- Others, not so much. The heavy bass and percussion of "Come Together" complement the No-Holds-Barred Beatdown in Sonny's bar very well.
- Take A Fourth Option:
Sonny: There's only three things to do in the joint, kid: lift weights, play cards, or get into trouble.
Calogero: What did you do?
Sonny: Me? I read.
- Talking to the Dead: Calogero, Carmine, and Lorenzo all take turns doing this with Sonny's body at the wake.
- Time Skip
- Timeshifted Actor: Actually, some critics mentioned preferring Francis Capra as "Young Calogero" to Lillo Brancato as the teenage Calogero/C.
- Title Drop: In the very last line of the movie.
- Too Dumb to Live: C's friends were so stupid with the Molotovs that they deserved to die for that alone, aside from all their other racist Jerk Assery.
- The Un-Reveal: What was that fight about? Even Sonny and Carmine confirm that it was not over the parking space, but neither says what the real cause was.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Calogero's mother is never seen after the Time Skip.
- She also mentions something about "taking care of the baby," who also is never seen after the Time Skip.
- White Gang-Bangers
- Write What You Know & Write Who You Know: A large portion of the story comes from Chazz Palminteri's own childhood in the Bronx and experiences growing up. Also, Palminteri's full name is Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri.