Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas – a glamorous but brutal depiction of factual gangsters – is widely regarded as one of the greatest films in the gangster genre. It spawned many imitators, similar to what happened with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994. In regards to both filmmakers, even they somewhat became their own imitators, such as 1995’s Casino, which was a glossier take on the Goodfellas formula. (It is still really good, just not as fresh.) This year, we saw Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Scorsese’s The Irishman, both show a maturity that we haven’t seen before from the two directors.
Based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, this was considered a dream project for Robert De Niro. The legendary actor is not only one of the producers, he wanted to play the eponymous Irishman himself. The movie marks the first collaboration for both the director and the actor since Casino.
De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, introduced in the beginning as an elderly man in a wheelchair staying at a retiring home, recounting his time as a mafia hitman. Since the 1950s, Frank has been working for the Bufalino crime family, leading to a friendship with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). He finds himself involved with the labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
The Irishman certainly has some similarities to Goodfellas. It is a gangster epic told over a long period of time. The main character narrates throughout, discussing the mechanics about how the criminal underworld coincides with important political events in America, most notably the Kennedys. No stranger to writing the dramatic epics that scream “for your consideration” including Schindler’s List, screenwriter Steven Zaillian is moving a lot of gears. The narrative spans decades and is even told through flashback-within-flashbacks where the most incidental character has some form of significance. So much happens in that three-and-a-half hours, it’s incredible how well-paced it is. Thelma Schoonmaker’s sharp editing makes the transition from one time period to the next seem so easy.
From his time in World War II, shown briefly in one sequence all the way into his wheelchair, we essentially see De Niro as Frank (as well as a number of other actors in their respected roles) going through the current VFX wave of de-aging. Even before a number of MCU installments perfected this technique, de-aging in film has been around since the likes of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Scorsese may have opinions towards these more effects-driven blockbusters, but he embraced the latest film technology as evidenced in 2011’s Hugo, which has some of the best 3D done in cinema.
When you first notice the de-aging process here, it does feel initially jarring. The three leads of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino have very distinctive faces. The sudden loss of their wrinkles is noticeable. However, at some point, you just forget about the technical aspect and focus on some of the best performances these legendary actors have ever done.
Seeing this trio of actors together makes The Irishman a powerhouse that feels even more grand from Ray Romano’s comic attorney to Anna Paquin’s near-silent daughter of the Irishman himself. Although Pacino chews the scenery as the grandstanding Teamster Hoffa, Pesci’s more subtle performance as Bufalino is what will catch people’s attention despite not being as psychotically violent as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. Pesci’s soft vocals here adds a level of antagonism.
If there is a key difference between this and his 1990 magnum opus, which was more driven by its youthful nature, The Irishman is surprisingly funny – showcasing Scorsese’s underrated skill at comedy. This is combined with a melancholic tone about a man who believes in friendship and loyalty but is consumed by the sins of his mafia life. Everything is encompassed through De Niro’s flawed but tragic figure.