VOD film review: Mean Streets
Ivan Radford | On 28, Nov 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel
Watch Mean Streets online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
“Do I know Brooklyn? Do I know the jungle?” That’s Charlie (Harvey Keitel) to his best friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) in Mean Streets, and it’s a statement of affection and authenticity from director Martin Scorsese as much as his characters.
The filmmaker, fresh from Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Boxcar Bertha, announced his distinctive cinematic voice with this buzzing crime thriller, the first film properly of his own making. Written with Mardik Martin, it’s based on Scorsese’s own observed experiences in New York’s Little Italy, a tale of two buddies helping each other through the city’s underbelly.
Charlie is a young man living in the shadow of his uncle, Giovanni, a loan shark with enough criminal connections to hold sway in the neighbourhood. Johnny Boy, on the other hand, is a gambler with no sense of respect or restraint. They’re an odd couple, but a genuine one, and part of the fun of the film is just seeing their chemistry unfold. Harvey Keitel is brilliantly intense as the man torn between Catholic duty and family loyalty (he’s also secretly seeing Johnny Boy’s cousin), and De Niro is a livewire as his reckless sidekick. It’s hard to think of a performance where the typically withdrawn Raging Bull star has been so carefree and vibrant; watching him pour his energy into every scene with an improvised naturalism makes for electric viewing, bringing an almost documentary-like vibe to the raw, rough and ready footage.
Seeing a young Scorsese announce himself behind the camera is also part of the draw, of course, and Mean Streets’ down-and-dirty aesthetic teases the director’s violent brand of storytelling as it begins to mature – right out of the gates, his knack for a pin-sharp needle-drop is toe-tappingly evident. But perhaps most rewarding of all, it reminds you how central religion has always been to his work – from The Departed to Silence – as his strong sense of morality and consequences always underpins the notions of duty, consequences and honour that govern his colourful casts of god-like criminals. As Charlie tries to reconcile his own religious beliefs with working for his uncle, what emerges is a tale of one man trying to find his own redemption by helping a friend – even if that means putting his own life at risk. The result is a crimson-bathed story of retribution and a formative flick for Scorsese and others alike – a scuzzy, stylish flick that set the standard for anyone walking these Mean Streets for decades to come.