Crazy Joe (Peter Boyle) is a gangster with a chip on his shoulder and a self-taught intellectual who can (misquote) Sartre and Camus with the best of them. Sick of being taken for granted, Joe and his brother, Richie (Rip Torn), attempt to challenge the Mafia establishment. The mob sets Joe up and gets him sent to prison. While doing time, Joe befriends a Harlem gangster named Willy (Fred Williamson). Refusing to associate with the other Italian prisoners, Joe allies himself with the black inmates and even helps to start a riot over the prison’s inhumane conditions. When he is released, Joe hits the streets of New York with a vengeance, now backed up by Willy and his criminal organization.
Crazy Joe is based on the life of Joey Gallo, who was briefly a New York celebrity, hobnobbing with actors like Jerry Orbach and writers like Norman Mailer before he was gunned down at Umberto’s Clam Shop in Little Italy. Though the names were changed to protect the guilty, Eli Wallach plays Vito Genovese, Charles Cioffi plays Joe Columbo, and Luther Adler is Joe Profaci. Fred Williamson’s character is based on the infamous Nicky Barnes.
Crazy Joe is a good and violent mix of the gangster, prison, and blaxploitation genres. Despite wearing an unfortunate toupee, Peter Boyle is great at putting the crazy in Crazy Joe and Fred Williamson ups the coolness factor of any movie he appears in. Keep an eye out for Henry Winkler, giving a very un-Fonzie performance as Joe’s right-hand man.