JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT YOU'D OD'd on movies about goombahs and goodfellas in the old neighborhood, along comes A Bronx Tale, a deliciously well-observed memory piece about growing up in the '60s that marks the vital debut of director Robert De Niro. Sure, there are echoes of Scorsese, but De Niro and writer Chazz Palminteri put a fresh spin on their story of a young boy growing up torn between two patriarchs-his real dad (De Niro), a hardworking bus driver who wants to save his son from the temptations of the street, and the suave local crime boss Sonny (Palminteri), who takes the 9-year-old Calogero (Francis Capra) under his wing when the boy refuses to rat on Sonny for shooting a man in the street. At the age of 17, Calogero (Lillo Brancato) is reveling in his status as the Machiavellian Sonny's favorite, but he's still got his father's decency. When black/Italian racial tensions come to a boil, his lowlife pals reach for baseball bats but he falls for a lovely black girl (Taral Hicks). Sonny tells him to follow his heart, but only if she passes The Door Test: if she leans over and unlocks his side of the car before he gets in, she's worth pursuing.
It's details like this that give "A Bronx Tale" its vibrancy. It's a generous movie, teeming with great neighborhood characters--like Eddie Mush, who never placed a bet he didn't lose--and with a dynamite selection of '60s music. Both funny and brutal (and only at the very end, a little too melodramatic for its own good) Palminteri's screenplay views the radical social changes of the '60s through the prism of a patriarchal society frozen in its ways. (Sonny's boys make mincemeat of an invading squad of long-haired bikers.) Wonderfully acted by a seamless mix of pros and amateurs, this pungent, bittersweet movie lets us taste the flavors of a warm and dangerous time and place.