CINEMA / Down the mean streets in a bus: De Niro's modest protest feels less like a rival vision than a commentary on Scorsese

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'IF YOU are going to do these cliches, make them real cliches,' Robert De Niro said recently a propos his directorial debut, A Bronx Tale (18). Which neatly sums up why the terrain feels well-observed but well-trodden. Down these mean streets, most movie-goers will have gone many times. We're introduced (by the usual reminiscing voice-over) to another Little Italy of small shops, like Vincent's Meat Market and Phil's Fruit Stand, peopled by men with nicknames for surnames - Tony Toupee, Eddie Mush, JoJo the Whale, Frankie Coffeecake - many of whom are played by their real-life models. It's a lyrically remembered world where a cappella groups croon on street corners and the Yankees rule the roost, with only the odd note of humour undercutting the romantic idyll. 'Come on, baby, you know I love you.' 'Yeah, bullshit.' 'Get in the fuckin' car.'

The plot is also familiar: a young boy's rites of passage, as he steers between father-figures. From his doorstep, nine- year-old Calogero (Francis Capra) sees a murder committed by head hoodlum Sonny (Chazz Palminteri, on whose semi-autobiographical one- man show the film is based). The boy precociously stonewalls the cops and earns Sonny's affection, plus on-the-job coaching in dice-rolling and intimidation. By keeping mum, he gains a dad. The trouble is he already has one: straight- laced De Niro, the local bus driver. De Niro driving a bus? Er, yes: from Taxi Driver to bus driver. The streets may be sewers, but he's more concerned with kids jumping on the back fender. A pity he didn't cast Meryl Streep as his conductor.

For De Niro this completes (I hope) a year of the nerd, playing losers too dim for his dazzling talents - Mr Nice Guys with no demons to wrestle. Here, his part is also underwritten. He's always on at his boy not to fritter life away - 'The saddest thing is wasted talent' - but we don't have any sense of the personal pain involved in the getting of this wisdom. You keep feeling the film would have been more compelling if De Niro had swapped roles with his leading man. Palminteri, with his lofty elegance, hair slicked back from his imposing brow, and heavy lips, is a class above his minions - a physical leader. But he has little of the relaxed power and buried menace that De Niro showed in a similar role in GoodFellas.

There is a sense, in this gentle fable, of De Niro questioning a few of the conventions of the genre in which he grew up. The nostalgia is edged with unease, the devilry more in the details than the broad sweep: in a scene where Calogero and his friends ape the macho posturing of their fathers, mini-mobsters at nine years old; or the glib way in which the teenaged Calogero (Lillo Brancato, a ringer for the young De Niro, with the same shy flamboyance, and the same leather jacket) resorts to the Catholic church. And Sonny is a genuinely ambivalent figure: he's a great man, we're told at the end, but when De Niro points out to his son that Sonny is feared rather than loved, it sounds like a rebuff to the code of 'respect' that runs through mob movies. 'It don't take much strength to pull a trigger,' De Niro argues, 'but try getting up every morning to go to work.'

The trigger finger, though, will always be of more interest to movies than the bus route. A Bronx Tale puts up a small struggle, then succumbs to a fiery climax. It's a cautious, capable start to De Niro's directing career, lacking the restless energy which made his acting name - and which distinguishes the work of his mentor, Martin Scorsese. In Mean Streets, Scorsese plugged us into the subterranean world of the small-time gangster, while in GoodFellas he showed us the power and licence of the high- rollers: in both, the mob's heedless verve was almost irresistible, maybe even to Scorsese. De Niro's modest protest feels less like a rival vision than a commentary on Scorsese - a look back in mild anxiety.

What sort of film wins a European director a contract with a major American studio? One that flashily rehearses American movie tropes, judging by Carlo Carlei's Flight of the Innocent (18), which flew Carlei to Hollywood. The light falls on the Calabrian countryside in hazy shafts of gold and the blood spurts out of victims in splashy slow-motion. We start with the climax of a Southern Italian feud that leaves only little, symbolically named Vito (Manuel Colao) standing - or rather lying, as he's hiding under a mattress. Though the violence is mythologised, Godfather-style, these early scenes are disturbing: for the first half- hour, with hardly a word spoken, the story pushes on in jolting images. But as Vito hits the city - lit in the same misty glow - and the plot unravels into a kidnapping intrigue, invention flags and the stylistic tricks seem disorganised. We hear echoes of Kubrick, De Palma and Rossellini, but can't make out Carlei's own voice. Only in a beautiful coda, a fantasy of what life might have been in the Calabrian sun, do we come to feel for the people we've seen mown down.

La Crise (15) is a highly intelligent comedy from Coline Serreau (director of Romuald and Juliette and the original of Three Men and a Baby), with one major drawback - it's not that funny. Victor (Vincent Lindon) wakes up to find the bed beside him empty, and a Cher Jean note from his wife. At work he hears that he's being sacked. One of those days. He spends the film looking for someone who'll listen to his grief, but they're all too preoccupied with their own. Only the vagabond Michou (Patrick Timsit) lends an ear. The yuppie nightmare becomes a modern Don Quixote, as the pair tramp between people wrapped up in illusory problems which seem to be their main source of energy. It's all too casual and trifling. This time Serreau has thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Quentin Curtis's review of the big film of the week, 'Schindler's List', appeared last Sunday. In case you missed it, an abridged version is on page 74 of the 'Sunday Review', with the usual cinema details.

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