Review by J.T. Johnson
It feels a little weird watching “Mean Streets” after having seen other Martin Scorsese films first such as “Goodfellas”, “Casino” and “The Departed”. Watching the movie, it is most definitely Scorsese. His regulars such as Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel are there as is his ability to use famous songs to highlight certain emotional moments and the raw violence that is also a highlight of Scorsese’s look at the seedy underbelly of New York.
However, this is early Scorsese when he was at his most raw. De Niro is Johnny Boy, a crazy low-level criminal and gambler that probably would have been played by Joe Pesci had the director known him at the time. It is Keitel as the morally conflicted Charlie that you would think De Niro would play after knowing the kind of roles that Scorsese would cast him in later on.
The movie is definitely a precursor to films such as “Goodfellas”. The movie doesn’t take a direct look at the mob, but instead it takes a look at the world of small crimes and loan sharks. Charlie works as an enforcer for his loan shark uncle, but his heart is not completely in it as he is also a devout Catholic and he’s constantly trying to reconcile his criminal life with his faith and the desire to be a decent person.
Throughout the film, both the audience and characters in the movie wonder why Charlie sticks his neck out for his self-destructive friend Johnny Boy. Sure, Charlie is loyal to his friend, but there’s more to it than that. If Charlie can protect Johnny Boy, then perhaps he can attain a little bit of redemption that he doesn’t think he can get from going to confession at church.
As I mentioned before, the film contains the signature violence that has become a staple in Scorsese’s New York films, but it’s way less choreographed here. Again, this is understandable because this is a younger Scorsese trying to deal with a small budget and the initial inexperience of being a director. It’s actually very similar to “Reservoir Dogs” in that regard as that was Quentin Tarantino’s debut and it too is from a talented yet still inexperienced filmmaker that is just about to hit his stride.
“Mean Streets” is an honest look at the underground world of New York City, something that Scorsese grew up in and witnessed. While it may be more of a precursor to better things to come from the legendary director, that doesn’t make it any less important. The movie is still powerful, real and if you’re a fan of Scorsese, it’s also required viewing.
If anything, you need to at least watch it for the powerful performances from both Keitel as the quiet Charlie and De Niro as the outrageous Johnny Boy. This movie shows why De Niro became one of his generation’s finest actors and Keitel also shows why he became a sought after leading man. They are both criminals, but underneath the surface they show you the human beings that you may not necessarily cheer for, but you at least feel for them as the film reaches its surprising and abrupt conclusion.