“We are your Family. We come before anything, even your own family.”
Everything about Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn — the setting, the storyline, the cast, the title — brings to mind vastly superior crime dramas. To be fair, it’s incredibly difficult to say something in this genre that hasn’t already been said brilliantly by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese or David Chase. So instead of trying to carve out its own turf, this low-budget effort seems to almost revel in how derivative it is. At the very least, the people who made this movie seem to love gangster flicks as much as we do.
Bobby Baldano (William DeMeo) has just been released from prison after serving a five-year stretch for armed robbery. His father Joseph (Armand Assante) is a self-made man — as opposed to a “made man” — who owns a successful construction company. Joseph wants Bobby to leave his life of crime behind and come work for the family. Unfortunately, Bobby is more interested in spending time with his work “Family,” which includes acting boss Patsy (Tony Darrow), dopey “captain”
Fat Slick Sally (Gaetano Iacono) and Bobby’s trustworthy crew members Jimmy (Wass Stevens) and Stan “The Jew” (Louis Vanaria).
Bobby’s crew and freedom are eventually threatened by a snitch, so he enlists the help of colorful character Tyler Moss (Ice-T), who has a talent for hunting down members of the Witness Protection Program. As the walls start closing in around Bobby, he has to decide whether to honor his family name or submit to a life that will almost certainly end in his destruction.
It’s an undeniably compelling and dramatic story hook, which is why this sort of tale has been told so many times. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn goes overboard in its efforts to pay tribute to the genre. For example, it’s not enough to have narration from Bobby that’s straight out of the Henry Hill Academy of Voiceovers, but director/co-writer/co-producer Paul Borghese also pops up in a small role as an FBI agent tracking the Baldanos, so we get to hear his thoughts as well. (Not that anyone cares.) Borghese admits in the commentary track that part of the reason they settled on two narrators was so they could more easily manipulate the storytelling in postproduction.
That sloppiness is evident throughout the entire production, which is a shame because Borghese actually has talent as a visual storyteller. Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn opens with Bobby beating up a guy in a pool hall, but the scene is ultimately inconsequential, so it’s confusing to see the film briefly revisit it later. Subplots are introduced — Bobby humiliates an up-and-coming wiseguy; Bobby romances aspiring singer Rena (Elia Monte-Brown) and helps out a music producer (Ja Rule) dealing with a problematic rapper — but ultimately go nowhere. After that opening scene, the film flashes forward a bit to the present day before flashing back one year to Bobby getting out of jail. We’re eventually taken back another 10(!) years before returning to a year in the past and ending in the present. (At this point, even Christopher Nolan’s head would start to hurt.) Just for good measure, the film ends with a twist straight out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
DeMeo was also the star/co-writer/co-producer of Searching for Bobby D, an indie about a group of filmmakers who fund their project by claiming Robert DeNiro is attached. He shows a similar sort of hustle here as he ably carries the movie from one well-worn cliché to another. One thing that sets this film apart from others in the genre is how Bobby doesn’t seem too interested in the glitz and glamour that usually come with gangster life: the satisfaction of out-muscling another guy is enough for him. Assante isn’t in the movie much — which mirrors the way Bobby’s family are too small of a factor in his life — but he’s got a nice powerhouse scene toward the end. It was also good to see him play a legitimate businessman in this sort of movie, since he tends to get cast as gangsters.
Meanwhile, the presence of rappers/actors (though they do a lot less rapping these days) Ice-T and Ja Rule reminded me of the diversity in Brooklyn most famously depicted in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Ice even delivers a forced mini-monologue about Coney Island when he first saunters on screen. The film is also populated by effective character actors in wiseguy roles. (Vincent Pastore turns up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as a barber, which is incredible because you figure a guy best known for playing someone named “Big Pussy” would be hard to miss.)
Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn isn’t incredibly long — 116 minutes — but it feels bloated because the film seems to want to cover everything that’s ever been part of a gangster movie. (Rats! Best friend betrayal! The temptation to go legit! Pasta!) The good(ish) news is this “kitchen sink” approach inevitably yielded enough good things to keep this from being a total mafia misfire.