For aficionados of gangster movies, watching Claudio Giovannesi's Piranhas is a little like drinking a bottle of an old familiar varietal wine. The story of an ambitious, ruthless 15-year-old kid called Nico (the aptly named Francesco Di Napoli) and his pals taking over their neighborhood in contemporary Naples is absolutely no different in form than a mobster pic from the 1920s. So we can approach the film — written by director Giovannesi with veteran Neapolitan author Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah) and Mauricio Brauzzi — as a generic piece of work we already know well. That is its beauty (and some scenes are very beautiful indeed) and also its downfall.
Skinny, intense Nico, whose mother runs a dry cleaning shop in the Rione Sanità district, is already the leader of his own band of juvenile delinquents when we meet him, stealing a giant Christmas tree one night from a shopping galleria. First-time actor Di Napoli is a good-looking young man with a penetrating gaze — we could almost pardon ourselves for thinking he resembles the young Frank Sinatra. But his future plans, such as they are, involve extortion instead of music.
As Nico and his crew zip around the narrow streets like an armed edition of the Bowery Boys on motor scooters, director Giovannesi treats us to the nooks and crannies of Naples, a maze of rotting ancient infrastructure peopled by, as far as the film shows us, only hard-working citizens in the marketplaces and a colorful layer of thieves whose taste in interior decorating runs to the rococo. With the single-mindedness of a James Cagney or Joe Pesci, Nico climbs the crime ladder from pranks to jewelry store robbery to shakedowns to assassination of rivals — never failing to pray at the shrine of Donna Concetta (her skull sweats, and the sweat supposedly brings good luck).
Nico's hectic wanderings cover a fairly narrow slice of real estate, and never fail to stress the pungent flavor of his hometown — a gaudy wedding reception, an evening at the sumptuous opera house with his girlfriend Letizia (Viviana Aprea), a cokey nightclub scene like any other, and, for one brief moment at a brothel where the boys spend their cash, a tender serenade by a guitar-playing vocalist. After Nico steals a handgun from an unwary cop, he makes sure to stop and take a selfie. We have to remind ourselves that these hoods are teenagers.
Despite Giovannesi's fine eye for detail and Di Napoli's impressive screen debut, Piranhas never quite reaches the heights of Gomorrah, Dogman, or Reality, to name three outstanding examples of the current wave of Naples crime pics. Maybe it's because the story arc is clichéd — although we're convinced Nico's youthful crime spree is truly a part of the Neapolitan fabric, absolutely nothing new in a place where every neighborhood has its own platoon of competing hustlers. For best results, take in Piranhas with a bag of popcorn (or better yet a slice of pizza) and the knowledge that movies will always find boys of the slums irresistible.