The first time that Robert De Niro appears up-close in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets is to the tune of the Rolling Stones' Jumpin' Jack Flash. It's from this point forward that the movie leaves the realm of being a 'good film' and becomes 'one of the greatest films of all time.' Simply put, the energy of Mean Streets is fantastic. De Niro's flamboyant entrance is one of many iconic moments in the film, which has influenced just about every crime film made since for good reason.
And yet ironically Mean Streets is rarely acknowledged as the masterpiece that it is, perhaps because a number of people actually forget about it. Everyone remembers Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas in particular, but Scorsese's breakthrough remains one of his most important and honest pieces of work, given little recognition apart from the praise by movie critics who do remember it.
Harvey Keitel, giving one of his most realistic and three-dimensional performances of all-time, plays the lonely and worried Charlie, a 20-something New York City Catholic who is haunted by his friend, Johnny Boy (De Niro), the local loner who has to jump off the sides of streets in order to dodge the local Mafia thugs he owes money to.
Mean Streets has been accused of lacking a point, and one critic calls it 'too real,' but I'd take this over most recent films any day of the week. Mean Streets doesn't have a dynamic arc like most motion pictures do sure, there's the rising action leading up to the climax, but it doesn't move from one frame to another trying to figure out the easiest way to end the movie while managing to stress all its points in such a manner so blatant that a four-year-old could pick up the themes.
It respects its audience enough to study its characters in such a way that they are given ten times as much depth as those seen in modern films released through Hollywood. As Johnny Boy, De Niro paints the ultimate portrait of a typical street loner a dumb kid who 'borrows money from everyone and never pays them back.' Charlie, much smarter and wiser, takes Johnny under his wing and tries to help him get a job, so that he can pay back what he owes to a local kingpin. However, Johnny is so irresponsible and stupid that he doesn't show up for work and begins fighting with the mob leading up to an inescapable conclusion that features some very ancient themes colliding together. It's the classic tale of redemption and escaping one's past, and if the film has a point it is that some people can't change and you'll get what's coming to you, even if you've got other people helping you out.
The film does have its technical flaws, such as poor dubbing, inconsistency, and the occasional goof. It's a raw movie, filmed on a low budget by a young and far more naïve Martin Scorsese. But all his typical elements are in place, to be expanded upon later in his career.
Keitel and De Niro are superb, particularly De Niro who shows great range very early on in his career. Almost unrecognizable in shabby clothing, hats and a scrawny figure to boot, this is a role that would typically be more suitable for Christopher Walken or other charismatic character actors but De Niro pulls off the role with intense talent, proving once again that he can handle any type of role. He's known for his psychotic roles, but in Mean Streets, he plays the opposite of Travis Bickle. Johnny Boy isn't unstable or psychopathic he's just wild and stupid.
Keitel channels all the thoughtful consciousness of an older child, considering Johnny Boy to be a brother of sorts. He feels that if he fails Johnny, he will somehow fail himself.
Mean Streets is a careful character study that never resorts to cardboard cutout caricatures or the standard clichés of the genre. Dialogue does not exist to move action forward towards the next adrenaline-packed sequence; Mean Streets focuses on its inhabitants with such strong emotional power that it's impossible not to be caught up in its grasp. A true classic from start to finish, and undeniably a very moving film.