A mob hitman recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa.
‘The Irishman’ has spent a long time in development and for many years it seemed like it would never happen, and if it did, would it be any good? Robert De Niro hasn’t been in many good films recently, nor has Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci has all but retired from acting, yet if anyone could draw performances from these cinematic legends it’s Martin Scorsese and it’s great to report that ‘The Irishman’ is really, really good. Based on a novel called ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ by Charles Brandt, it is a decade spanning tale centering on Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (De Niro), a man who ended up working as a hitman for the Bufalino crime family, climbing higher and higher in the ranks and becoming involved in some of the biggest mob developments of the second half of the 20th century. Pesci plays his friend and mentor Russell, and Pacino plays leading union official Jimmy Hoffa, a man whose infamous disappearance hangs over this film like a shadow. All three are superb.
This is an old fashioned crime epic in the vein of ‘The Godfather’ series or ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, clocking in at well over three hours and spanning a long period of time with multiple characters and stories going on at once, yet it also shows an embrace for modern cinema with a Netflix release and de-aging technology to allow Pesci, Pacino and De Niro to play much younger versions of their characters. Both aspects are handled with the touch of a master, with Scorsese perfectly equipped to draw this sprawling narrative into a satisfying movie that maintains your attention for not far off four hours long. The de-aging technology works really well (Domenick Lombardozzi’s character is the only one that’s a bit distracting), and it’s aided by the strongest performances in years from Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, who share a screen together properly for the first time (give or take a scene or two in ‘Heat’, and I’ll pretend ‘Righteous Kill’ doesn’t exist!). Joe Pesci, coaxed out of retirement for this performance, subverts his famed style of performing with a nuanced subtle display of a reasonable man gradually losing control of events happening around him.
‘The Irishman’ is a more meditative, understated piece of work from Scorsese, and whilst it does have his trademark flourishes it’s more concerned with musing on legacy, the passage of time and how a lifestyle such as this gradually alienates those you should be focusing on. Sheeran, and the other mafia members, are forced to reckon with their past and the life they chose to lead, and I felt really invested in these characters stories. I was surprised by how much I felt for these characters, and the last 30 minutes hits you quite hard as the characters actions makes their ultimate fates inevitable. This is supported by the melancholic musical theme composed by Robbie Robertson that enhances the sense of regret that lingers over everything. There is one sequence in particular that is absolutely outstanding, set at a testimonial dinner for Sheeran where everyone who is anybody is in attendance, and where we witness the start of the end that ‘The Irishman’ has been building too.
The Netflix v traditional cinema debate has raged on for a number of years now (ironically Scorsese generated a new old vs new debate with his criticism of Marvel’s cinematic output), but there has been a bit of give on Netflix’s side in the last couple of years which has allowed films like ‘The Irishman’ to be seen in cinemas where they belong, albeit mostly limited to larger cities (once again, extremely fortunate to have Edinburgh’s fine Filmhouse Cinema a short walk down the road). This is a positive change and one that bodes well for a collaborative future between streaming services such as Netflix and the traditional cinema experience.
‘The Irishman’ is an excellent film from Martin Scorsese, harking back to some of his most popular films and a genre where he feels right at home, but with some of the additional qualities of his more ruminative recent works. I was a big fan and I’d recommend trying to watch it on as big a screen as possible, if the opportunity is available to you.
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Domenick Lombardozzi, Jack Huston, Sebastian Maniscalco, Steven Van Zandt, Paul Ben-Victor, Jeremy Luke, Aleksa Palladino, India Ennenga, J. C. Mackenzie and Gary Basaraba