Somehow, watching teenagers become gangsters has become not shocking or effective anymore. Just a decade ago, Gomorrah presented a haunting and often terrifying look at youths becoming part of the organized crime that ran their city. Based on a novel by Roberto Saviano, who also wrote Gomorrah, Piranhas makes kids engaging in a life of crime look by-the-numbers and ordinary. For an idea that should inherently be full of nervous uncertainty and dread, Piranhas has little drama or originality.
Nicola (played by excellent newcomer Francesco Di Napoli) wants to be in a position of power. At first, his intentions are good, as he wants to stop the gangsters in his Naples neighborhood from harassing his mother and her laundry business. But as Nicola and his gang of friends begin working for the local mafia, then begin working for themselves, the power and money start to get to their heads.
Piranhas’ greatest original choice is for Nicola’s gang to truly feel like adolescents playing at being criminals. As their empire grows, Nicola and his friends, as well as director Claudio Giovannesi, focus on the positive aspects of this type of life and keep the negative unseen. All Nicola sees of his new life is the opportunity to protect his loved ones and provide for his needs and wants. But largely, Giovannesi has the gang’s antics come off as truly amateurish. Their first “hit” fails because the gun jams, and as they run away, they drive their scooter into a parked truck. When the gang gets heavier firepower, they rely on videos online to discover how to use their new weaponry.
This is probably why Piranhas is only interesting when it’s about kids granted power, instead of focusing on its generic gangster story. Piranhas falls into the standard organized crime story beats, and while that could’ve been a bit of meta-commentary, with these kids attempting to live the lives they’ve only seen on the screen, Piranhas completely ignores the fact that the audience – and these kids – have likely seen this story play out this exact way time and time again.
Key to what makes Piranhas actually engaging is Di Napoli, who brings an innocence and gentleness to his rise to the top of his own criminal organization. His performance works when he’s asked to show compassion, and there is a sort of blankness to this role whenever he’s asked to be a gun-toting badass. But it’s the empathy that stands out in Di Napoli’s performance, as if he truly believes himself to be a Robin Hood figure for his neighborhood.
Nicola stands out because most of the rest of the cast are little more than support. The members of his gang mostly bleed into each other and his girlfriend Letizia (Viviana Aprea) has no agency beyond if she makes Nicola happy. Nicola’s mother and brother are little more than standard gangster movie tropes. Nicola’s mother is there to question why her son is all of a sudden so wealthy, and Nicola’s brother is evidence that this type of mafioso lifestyle can often become a cyclical pattern.
Considering how compelling Saviano once made young gangster life seem, it’s surprising him and Giovannesi can’t at least replicate that. Instead, Piranhas becomes more of a commonplace, stale take on the criminal life, despite the appalling youth of these characters.