Sunday, July 27, 2008

Chuck Zito, "Street Justice" (2002).

Chuck Zito is a quintessential tough guy. He might even be the premiere hard-ass of our times. As a young Italian-American boy in Brooklyn, he hardened himself into an amateur boxer, and even won a few rounds of the Golden Gloves Tournament. He's also a self-proclaimed expert in several martial arts. But it's his associations as much as his physical prowess and street sense that have led to his fame. Once the president of the New York Nomads Chapter of the Hells Angels, he gradually insinuated himself into the world of celebrity, becoming the bodyguard of such luminaries as Liza Minelli, Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone (who he bears more than a passing resemblance to).

I first became aware of Zito through his work on the HBO series OZ. He plays "Chucky Pancamo", a mobbed-up enforcer who takes absolutely no shit. And apparently he carries that reputation beyond the screen. As he seems fond of pointing out, Zito knows the difference between "reel life and real life". While his pedigree as a guy that "walks the walk" is clearly impressive, he's not an altogether admirable character. That becomes clear in his "autobiography", as told to reporter Joe Layden. Street Justice is a paean lovingly dedicated to Zito's perception of himself. He often comes across as self-righteous. His values appear a bit murky. At one point in his book, he fervently insists that he is not a bully.

Yet even by his own account, he has played the bully role on the streets. He shares anecdote after anecdote about incidents where he initiated violence because he believed someone was "disrespecting him". The litany of his victims is outlined in Street Justice. Rival outlaw motorcycle gang members seem to get the worst of it. However he doesn't limit himself to that sort of turf competition. In fact he notably beat down Jan Claude Van Damme at a strip club for talking trash about him. Anyone that looks at him cross-eyed, or dares to challenge him verbally gets popped. He even beats down a twenty-something who makes the mistake of "name-dropping" a NYC gangster. That specific beat-down serves to underscore another one of Zito's personality flaws- he's a bit of a hypocrite.

Zito is an inveterate name-dropper himself. He's constantly referring to the parade of movie stars and professional fighters he has been involved with. The photo section included in Street Justice is inundated with posed shots including a smiling Zito with diverse luminaries. Additionally, you can't find a single scene in his book where he is at some restaurant or club when he is not reminding the reader of his associations. If you were ever curious who owned this or that trendy New York or L.A. nightspot in the 80's and 90's, look no further than this book. Zito's palled around with them all, despite his contention that he has never touched drink or drugs. Still he's earned his bonafides, and spent plenty of time with the outcasts. Not only has he been tight with his bike buddies (who he has since apparently disassociated himself from since publication of his bio), but he's also served six years in federal prison on conspiracy charges*.

The strange thing about Zito is that despite his tendency to come off as a preening blowhard, it's hard not to like the guy at least a little. He does seem to value loyalty to his friends, and he's obviously garnered enough good-will to befriend a lot of prominent public figures. He's got an adopted daughter and a wife that he would do anything for, and he doesn't seem especially apt to hold grudges after his temper dies down. He's also led a truly interesting life, despite lacking many of the advantages of his colleagues in show business. To top it all off, Street Justice is a rip-roaring page turner. It's essential summertime reading. Besides, this reviewer wants to extend him due credit. The guy's personal motto is, "Treat me good, I'll treat you better; treat me bad... I'll treat you worse." I certainly wouldn't want to get on his bad side.

*Random trivia: Zito claims to be the only one associated with the series OZ to have actually served substantial time in prison.

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