Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Fun movie trivia fact: despite being friends for decades now, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have only appeared in four films together. More interestingly, in the first – The Godfather Part II – they had no scenes together, as De Niro was playing a role in a different period of time, the second – Heat – was a cops and robbers movie that had a central scene of no more than five minutes in which both men have a conversations. The third, the utterly forgettable Righteous Kill, was easily ignored for being awful, and now the two appear together on screen, many would say ‘properly’, in the 3.5-hour crime epic The Irishman.
The film, based largely on the true-crime novel I Heard You Paint Houses, follows the life and career of Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title, a former trucker turned mafia hitman who worked for the Bufalino crime family and had a long and fruitful friendship with one Jimmy Hoffa.
From the off, Martin Scorsese has requested that the film not be viewed on the phone, but rather on the big screen, despite the Netflix mandate of home viewing platforms. Most viewing will no doubt be on smaller screens, but some cinema chains have gone to the effort of showing the mammoth three and a half hour crime epic.
It’s interesting that the controversy about Marvel and Scorsese is still raging whilst the Spielberg vs Netflix one has gone away, showing that both are unimportant as long as quality stuff keeps getting made. And a quality piece of directorial work this surely is.
The Irishman is no doubt an absolute Scorsese movie through-and-through; it opens with a long tracking shot, has a jukebox soundtrack and is really about men talking to men. The film is clearly a labour of love for both the director and his friend Robert De Niro, and they give their best work in years respectively.
De Niro is tasked with playing the no-nonsense Sheeran from his twenties into his eighties, and the visual effects deployed are minimal and unintrusive. The only slight issue is that when De Niro is forced to move he still walks like an old man, even when he’s supposed to be in his twenties, which jars somewhat.
But his performance is great; it’s a subdued role and one that needs someone with the gravity to show him change over the years, and De Niro is a shoo-in for awards here. Surprisingly, Joe Pesci, who became known for his louder than life Oscar-winning performance in Goodfellas, is much more subdued here as the quiet (thought admittedly menacing) Russell Bufalino. The big coupe here is that it took several years to get Pesci to come out of retirement to take the role, and it was no doubt worth the time and effort.
Similarly, Al Pacino is the tough and loud Jimmy Hoffa is inspired casting, he gets to do what Pacino does best, and it pays off for the money paid to get him on the project. Not only does he resemble Hoffa, but he manages to make a man from the legend and bring him to life.
The film looks gorgeous also, the era is evoked wonderfully with the production design and costume design being of particular note for signalling where we are without being in your face. Of course, the editing by Scorsese standard Thelma Schoonmaker is particularly good, and the cinematography works well to bring you into the places.
The script by Steven Zaillian is good with some great lines of dialogue especially when Pacino takes down an attacker in court and says “with a gun, you charge the guy, with a knife you run. Charge with a gun, but with a knife you run.”
The real flaws come to two, and they are major. The three hour plus run time never feels long, and once Hoffa is introduced the film picks up steam and works, but it’s an hour before he does and that hour drags. Certain characters introduced make no impact and are easily forgotten including a supporting role by Harvey Keitel as a powerful gangster. The first hour should have been a crisp twenty minutes, tops, and dealt with mainly in the voice overused throughout.
The other flaw is the treatment of the women in the story. As with most Scorsese movies, there is more than one wife featured, and the first is a non-entity, the second wife is introduced very quickly, and despite being with him for most of his life she has barely anything to say.
Moreover, the film clearly wants the emotional core to be the crumbling relationship between Sheeran and first of four daughters Peggy, played by Anna Paquin. There’s a lot of her looking at him in the film, and he appears that the relationship with her is the one that he wishes was better, but sadly this falls down on the fact that Paquin has perhaps three lines in the film.
Had his daugher appeared more, the film might have felt like a more substantial meditation on what happens to a criminal like Sheeran over time, how they lose what they love, and that violence only leads to more violence. In the end, the film fumbles an emotional core, and wastes a brilliant talent that could easily hold her own even against a heavyweight like De Niro.
In a way, The Irishman is the mirror image to Goodfellas, which felt to revel in the crime, while this doesn’t. It does for Scorsese and gangsters what Eastwood did with Westerns with Unforgiven; it shows the age and the regret, and that it’s not all that glamorous in the end.
With his epic mob movie, we’re still very much in a painted Scorsese house, and it’s at times both welcoming and frustrating, but then again, ever since movie viewers were kids they’ve wanted to be gangsters.