As far as derivative crime sagas go, Paul Borghese’s Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn might represent the new gold standard of shameless barrel-scraping. Thematic strands of everything from Brian de Palma’s Scarface, the Godfather films, and Martin Scorsese’s entire filmography (Goodfellas, The Departed, and Mean Streets, in particular) find their way into his drama, but like any cheap imitation of a recognizable style, the film stings of cinematic larceny. After all, Borghese is no stranger to thievery, having directed the infamous Four Deadly Reasons, an independent feature that doubled as a racketeering scam for its producer and lead actor, Richard Castellano.
Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn concerns Bobby (William DeMeo), a mobster who’s just been released from the clink after serving nine years for armed robbery. It doesn’t take long for him to hook up with his former crime family and fall back into his old habits, though the new leadership has made earning cash more difficult than before—much to his chagrin, of course. Meanwhile, Bobby’s father, Joseph (Armand Assante), begs him to join his construction company and leave his life of crime behind. Ultimately, Bobby’s pride gets the best of him, sending him down a dangerous road that leads to violence and betrayal.
Of all the jumbled, exposition-filled subplots that weave their way through the film’s cumbersome two-hour runtime, the father/son dynamic is both the most interesting and the one given the least amount of attention. The idea of family is an obvious trope in any mob story, but when handled correctly, it provides a stable thematic foundation. The Sopranos, for instance, spent six stellar seasons exploring how loyalty, selfishness, honesty, and deception affect both a nuclear family as well as a crime family. Families, like any system of individuals bound together by common interest, thrive on order, compromise, and above all, compassion; the show’s storylines were at their most intriguing when self-interested characters attempted and subsequently failed to behave empathetically, revealing dramatic contradictions and duplicitous personalities. The Sopranos, perhaps more than any other contemporary gangster story, explored the moral dilemma and psychological implications inherent in a life of crime.
Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn is a shallow riff on these and other ideas, a lifeless and formally inept effort that pays lip service to the rich thematic possibilities of a quality gangster film. Borghese magnifies the sensationalist elements of the genre without giving any consideration to matters of story or characterization. The narrative nuances of something like The Sopranos or even The Godfather only complemented and contextualized the licentious pleasures of sex and violence, whereas this film provides a lazy, one-dimensional experience.