Highly watchable but also underdeveloped and unoriginal, Crazy Joe is one of myriad ultraviolent gangster films released in the wake of The Godfather (1971). Starring the powerful actor Peter Boyle as real-life New York City mobster Joey Gallo, the picture was produced by trash titan Dino De Laurentiis, and it boasts not only an eclectic cast of familiar ’70s faces but also a fast-moving storyline filled with betrayals, murders, robbery, and even a spectacular suicide. Furthermore, thanks to the lively script by Lewis John Carlino, the picture has flashes of intellectualism and style. The picture doesn’t go anywhere surprising, but there’s some vivid scenery along the way.
Viewers first meet Joe (Boyle) leading his gang of thugs through an afternoon of hanging out and an evening of committing a brazen hit in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Together, these two sequences effectively situate Joe as a character for whom death is as normal as grabbing a quick bite. Upon reporting the hit to his boss, Falco (Luther Adler), Joe is incensed to discover he won’t earn a bonus. Joe’s older brother, Richie (Rip Torn), intervenes before the argument escalates, but the seeds of a war have been planted. Thus, over the course of many years, Joe splits from Falco and later has an even bloodier battle with Falco’s successor, Vittorio (Eli Wallach). Joe’s ambition, as well as his appetite for danger, cause friction with Richie and with Joe’s wife, Anne (Paula Prentiss), even as Joe expands his operation by hiring African-American thugs controlled by Willy (Fred Williamson), whom Joe meets during a prison stint.
Excepting the material with Prentiss’ character, which is so anemic that it should have been jettisoned entirely, most of what happens in Crazy Joe is entertaining and lurid. Joe grandstands in front of powerful men. Joe leads his crew on daring criminal adventures. Joe studies philosophy in prison, thereby arriving at high-minded justifications (“The criminal is really just another existentialist expression”). Joe reveals hidden layers of civic-mindedness and decency by saving kids from a burning building. Boyle sinks his teeth into all of this material, portraying Joe as a being of pure id, relying on bravery and instinct even though restraint and strategy would ensure a longer life.
Yet Boyle’s performance is strangely one-dimensional, as if he can’t figure out how to decelerate for intimate scenes, and that gives the picture a certain degree of monotony. That’s why it helps to have such capable actors as Torn, Wallach, and Williamson bolstering the storytelling. Additionally, it’s fun to spot players including Charles Cioffi, Michael V. Gazzo, Hervé Villechaize, and Henry Winkler in secondary roles. As for the technical execution of the piece, which was handled by an international crew under the helm of director Carlo Lizzani, Crazy Joe is competently shot and effectively paced, allowing the focus to remain on the lively acting and the turbulent storyline.
Crazy Joe: FUNKY