Before we start talking about Mean Streets lets keep something in mind. No other filmmaker, aside from Orson Welles, has ever so drastically altered the course of film. How movies look and sound, what they can say or do was all altered by the ground Scorsese broke with his camera. My point is that the man is a God and if Tarantino, or the usual gang of idiots over at AICN want to lash out at him they should sit down, shut up, and remember that Pulp Fiction wouldn't exist without freaking After Hours much less one of Scorsese's classics. And make no mistake a classic is just what Mean Streets is. A punk howl of a birth cry, an announcement that something huge was here and it intended to change everything.
Mean Streets is basically about a group of loosely connected young hoods scrounging around New York in the 70's. There's no real storyline, simply a series of loosely connected vignettes, as Charlie (an impossibly young, unknown Keitel) faces his responsibility to his mobster uncle, his friends, his girlfriend, and his religion.
Oddly enough for a film that is virtually plotless (although plot shouldn't be confused with drama and humanity because the film has that in spades) the energy in Mean Streets never drops. Through use of camera work, editing, sound and dialogue Scorsese can turn even the most simple thing, such as DeNiro entering a bar, into a moment of epic grandeur when he pushes him through a hellish red light followed by a drunkenly rolling camera, as Jagger screeches "Jumping Jack Flash" in the background like a banshee.
The soundtrack of Mean Streets alone was insanely influential, it being the first film to use pop songs instead of a traditional score for a film on any kind of scale. It works beautifully from the very first scene when Keitel's head hits the pillow choreographed to the drumbeats of "Be My Little Baby".
Mean Streets captures New York in all its squalor and glory. It captures all forms of life, with wonderful dialogue and character work. The vignettes are great and beautifully varied from funny, with the classic pool hall brawl (Did we ever figure out what a mook was?), to frightening, (A scene with a baby faced assassin is one of the most singularly violent in Scorsese's singularly violent career), to tragic in Keitel’s relationship with a black stripper.
However none of these would work without great performances, which sell the movie’s situations one hundred percent. DeNiro and Keitel in particular cannot be over praised. DeNiro snaps like a method trained demon, frothing his way through the role of the self destructive Johnny. However he also taps moments of loyalty, tenderness, and friendship that stop his character from being a one note caricature. Keitel's performance is excellent as well, bringing to startling life a man who feels responsible for everything but believes that no matter what he does he is in a state of sin. (Sorta like a mobbed up Spiderman)
Indeed sin and religion soak every frame of Mean Streets. From the opening voiceover spoken by Scorsese himself, to the religious statues that seem to be eternally judging Mean Street’s happenings on earth, to the famous motif of Keitel testing the fires of hell over countless matches, candles, and burners.
So if you love film you need to see Mean Streets. It’s that simple. Not only is it a great movie teeming with life and drama but it changed the course of film itself. Buy it, Rent it, Steal it, but most of all see it.
Just don't see it for the features. The commentary is truly excellent, with Scorsese delivering his trademark mile a minute barrage of film history and facts. It’s interesting and informative (From a commentary who knew?) but it also serves as a nice throw of the gauntlet to the Spielbergs and Shyamalans of the world who consider themselves to be too high grade to stoop to commentary.
Unfortunately a man cannot live on commentary alone, and the featurette and trailer that round out this disc are sub standard. For shame Warner Brothers, for shame.