“Mean Streets” (1973) 4 / 5 stars - Serving as New York City’s mayor from 1994 through 2001, many experts and laymen widely credit Rudolph Giuliani with cleaning up the streets of “The Big Apple”.
In 1973, however, Martin Scorsese directed and co-wrote “Mean Streets”, and - at the time - he depicts New York City’s streets as anything, but clean.
In Scorsese’s picture, a world of pool halls, bars, clubs litter the screen, and men - who amuse themselves in this playground of trouble - travel back and forth between these seedy locations through equally seedy streets.
Talk of gambling, theft, drinking, and violence dominate the conversations, as two-bit hoods and minor crime bosses puff out their chests and jockey for the position on the machismo ladder.
Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is the film’s main character, and in the opening credits, we see him as a well-dressed and respected member of the city.
He seems like a police detective, but while Charlie struts through a red-lit club, we quickly decide, he plays by a different set of rules.
He is an up-and-comer with enough authority and common sense to earn respect, but he endlessly seems to surround himself with a number of men with arrested development and adolescent problems.
Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) takes up the most of Charlie’s time these days, and this hoodlum - who blows up mailboxes and fails to pay gambling debts - presents plenty of headaches.
He owes significant sums of money to an imposing figure named Michael (Richard Romanus), and Charlie regularly tries to prevent the creditor from committing bodily harm to the debtor.
De Niro is terrific as a 29-year-old loose cannon.
His character's bravado is only trumped by his irresponsibility, and Keitel is just as good as a man clearly handicapped by his association with an unstable troublemaker.
The film sets an erratic tone throughout its 1 hour 52 minute runtime, but drifts and rambles quite a bit.
Alcohol and arguments frequently lead to expletives and fistfights.
Many times we do not know why such staged pieces are necessary for the story, but breaking bottles and threats - under an ironic guise of an excellent soundtrack with songs like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Please Mr. Postman” and “Rubber Biscuit” - certainly set the tone for an ugly environment which can be singularly described as mean.
“Mean Streets” is not a Scorsese masterpiece, but it is an important picture.
Released two years after “Dirty Harry” (1971), it does not explore a police-brand of vigilante justice, but rather the low-level crime world’s own brand.
Justice is policed by them.
Follow me on Twitter: @MitchFilmCritic