Peter Boyle plays the title character in what may have seemed a natural follow-up to Joe. We meet Joey Gallo in 1960 as a movie-mad made man and a disgruntled underling alongside his brother Richie (Rip Torn) in the Falco family. Gallo's crew doesn't feel that they're getting their due or the proper respect from their bosses, and so they go to war, with second-in-command Vinnie Colleti opting to sit things out.
After a few rounds of mayhem the other crime families, led by Don Vittorio (Eli Wallach) attempt to negotiate a settlement, but Vittorio himself gives Joey a private assurance that, after the formality of releasing some hostages, the Gallos can settle accounts with the Falco leadership without interference. The Falcos end up with the upper hand when they set up Joey to get arrested trying to make an illegal firearms purchase, leaving him in jail for the next eight years, but they overplay their hand when they try to convince Colleti to whack Don Vittorio. Instead, Vinnie rats them out and is rewarded with leadership of the family. Richie can't handle the stress on his own and drives his car off a cliff to end the first act of the picture, which to this point has been a fairly conventional Mafia movie with moments of effective brutality and a nearly overqualified cast as well as such distinctive Seventies personalities as Henry Winkler and Herve Villechaize in supporting roles.
In the second act Crazy Joe becomes a definitive Seventies movie as the Mafia formula morphs into something more challenging. While in prison Joey educates himself with a bunch of books that Richie had given him, ranging from War and Peace (which he'd formerly mocked as "a commie book") to the writings of the Existentialists, who really impress him and give him a glorified sense of his own struggles. He also befriends Willie (Williamson), a black convict and a born leader who takes Gallo's half-baked philosophizing with increasing good humor; he sort of gets it himself. Joey himself can take some mockery, embracing the label of "the Italian Hippie."
Herve Villechaize as Samson, Joey Gallo's "bodyguard"
When Willie leads a prison riot to demand better conditions, the warden trusts Gallo to negotiate a peaceful resolution, which ends up with Willie getting his way and still getting released on schedule. The seeds of a potentially revolutionary collaboration are planted when Willie offers his help to Joey if he wants to challenge Coletti upon his release. At the same time that Joey and Willie envision an interracial mob, Coletti hits upon a notion of taking the heat off the Mafia by forming an Italian-American anti-defamation movement to protest negative portrayals of his people in the media. Consciously imitating both the Black Panthers and the NAACP, he rapidly builds a popular movement that draws 50,000 people to a Columbus Day rally. He does this initially with Don Vittorio's blessing, agreed on over a bottle of J&B because the Don is impressed by the amount of money Vinnie can raise in membership fees.
Eli Wallach as Don Vittorio, the arch-conservative who excels at playing insurgents off each other.
But Vittorio is taken aback by the size of the movement and the attention it's drawing to Costelli and other organizers. He warns Coletti to give up the movement before the second annual rally, but Vinnie refuses, besotted with a bit of megalomania and feeling that the movement is the only thing he can claim to have created himself. The Don initially welcomes Joey out of prison as a counter to Coletti's excess ambition, but soon finds himself even more troubled by Gallo's consorting with black gangsters.
Joe and Willie meet again on Joe's release as a runty-by-comparison Henry Winkler looks on.
The genius of Crazy Joe, for which credit is due to writers Nicholas Gage and Lewis John Carlino, is to make an old gangster the spokesman for "law and order" and against change. "All I hear about is change," he complains, "Men are becoming women. Women are becoming men." Despite this, he insists ominously, nothing really changes. In time, Vittorio finds a way to kill two birds with one stone, apparently hiring a black man to assassinate Costelli at the second Columbus Day rally so that Joey and Willie can be blamed for it. At first Willie thinks Joey has set him up to take the fall, but their bond proves stronger than his suspicion, and he buys into Joey's Spartacus-inspired scheme to go all-or-nothing -- to topple Don Vittorio himself or die trying....
How could a film with a cast like this go wrong? Well, it doesn't. Peter Boyle is terrifically charismatic as a guy who starts out a little crazy and a little dumb, who still seems a little laughable as he overeducates himself to the point of becoming briefly the lion of high society, yet finally proves a poignant figure as a final scene with his long-suffering girlfriend (Paula Prentiss) reveals the sincerity of his need to be an important person -- what he often refers to (imitating Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, as in a pre-credits theater scene) as a "big man." Although history dictates that he loses in the end, we get a sense that he did win to some extent, as he realizes that you're really a big man when others call you that, and experiences that when he negotiates the prison truce. Boyle's chemistry with Fred Williamson, who is quite good here in evolving from jailbird to a more "Hammer" like figure in freedom, gives the last half of the film a vitality that it lacked earlier. They share some outrageous moments, as when Gallo forces one of Vittorio's men to kiss Willie's (clothed, thank goodness) ass during a numbers robbery. Wallach and Torn are also very good, as is the less well known Charles Cioffi as Coletti, built up as a nemesis to Gallo who ends up the protagonist of his own parallel tragedy.
Carlo Lizzani's location work in New York City with cinematographer Aldo Tonti, assisted by stock footage of the real Columbus Day rallies staged by Joe Columbo, gives the film an additional epic feel in scenes atop skyscrapers overlooking the Manhattan skyline or at massive construction sites. He doesn't go short on the violence either, with a sequence of a Gallo gangster getting buried in cement after being beaten down with pickaxes and other implements and getting a hand chopped off serving as a highlight. Giancarlo Chiaramello's score has a lounge quality bordering on Muzak at times, but that seems appropriate for the period, and he comes through with some more serious music for the final scene between Boyle and Prentiss.
The movie can now apparently be purchased through Crackle, but the picture quality there is actually pretty good (the "Buy Now" thing doesn't mar the image if you watch it full screen) if you want to sit through it on your computer for free. Be prepared, however, to sit through some advertisements in the middle of the picture. If you can stand that, then Crazy Joe is definitely worth your time if you like Seventies crime or any of the lead actors. It's a unique blend of the gangster and failed-revolutionary genres that ought to be better remembered as a classic of its time.
And if you don't believe me, watch the trailer uploaded to YouTube by johnnyredeyes