Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Steve Zaillian (screenplay), Charles Brandt (book)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Welker White, Sebastian Maniscalco
Producers: Troy Allen, Gerald Chamales, Robert De Niro, Randall Emmett, Gastón Pavlovich, Jane Rosenthal, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler
Music: Robbie Robertson
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Running time: 209mins
What’s the story: Mob enforcer Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) recounts his life in the mafia, particularly his friendship with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).
What’s the verdict: With its five decade story arc across a near three and a half hour runtime, Martin Scorsese’s mobster masterpiece recalls the sprawling epics of yesteryear, from Gone with the Wind to The Godfather. Populated with a legendary actor dream team of De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and (a cameo’ing) Keitel.
Yet, with The Irishman Scorsese has abandoned the studio system for Netflix. Making the most of their coup, they have afforded the director total freedom and formidable financial resources. The runtime is streaming platform friendly, the laser-edge technology to de-age his septuagenarian and octogenarian cast the best money can buy (you honestly cannot spot the joins).
The trade-off is a short theatrical premiere run before the film hits Netflix November 27th (although it will continue to play in cinemas after that date).
Happily the strategy has worked. Scorsese delivers an exceptional denouement to the unofficial organised crime saga he began in 1973 on those Mean Streets. Dodging the feel of a mini-series, this may be Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas. A film huge in scope and ambition, it forensically details the mob’s connections with the Teamsters Union, its Chicago election tampering that secured JFK the presidency, and the supply of arms to anti-Castro Cubans ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
A massive story, all seen through the detached stare of De Niro’s Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, reuniting actor and director for the first time since 1995’s Casino. A teamster driver earning extra cash letting meat fall off his truck onto the plate of a local gangster (Cannavale), Frank’s chiseling allows him access to Russell Bufalino (Pesci).
A mafia boss, Bufalino settles disputes between criminal crews and has the power to proclaim when resolutions should be murderous. Russell sees value in Frank, a man of intelligence and a moral flexibility that saw him unquestioningly execute prisoners in World War 2 when higher-ups gave the go-ahead.
Bringing this skillset into the criminal underworld, Frank is soon deeply involved in the mob’s union interests. Specifically, those of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Initially dissuading other unions from threatening Hoffa’s set-up via judicious use of “candy” (dynamite), Frank swiftly becomes Jimmy’s unofficial number two.
The hothead Hoffa does not always play nice with his mobster co-financiers, leaving Frank to play peacemaker. But, how far can Hoffa push the patience of men who typically let guns do their talking?
Forgoing the whizz-bang rush of Goodfellas and Casino (or The Wolf of Wall Street), Scorsese delivers a sombre look at life inside the mob. Or maybe sober is a more accurate description; there is scant drug usage, these gangsters quietly going about business in backrooms and safe space restaurants, eroding society on the sly.
Although public killings are standard for those being made an example of, and few directors match Scorsese for capturing the sudden brutality of a mob hit. We also learn the mechanics of a contract killing in a subplot involving unguided missile Crazy Joe Gallo (Maniscalco), someone briefly referred to in Goodfellas.
But, the Irishman is far from a dour slog. Like his previous gangster movies, dark humour underscores the grim absurdity of mafia life. A running gag has onscreen titles introduce characters… and reveal what messy end they’ll meet decades later.
And as with those previous movies, Frank’s narration provides a gateway into the world and its imaginatively euphemistic jargon. Not least the film’s unofficial sub-title (based on the source book’s name), I Heard You Paint Houses. In other words, splashing brains against the wall.
De Niro will surely bag another Best Actor Oscar nom for his work as Frank. A man convinced maintaining the status quo is paramount, the later moral quandaries tell in tiny facial shifts, sideways glances and increasingly desperate attempts to make everyone play nice.
Coaxed out of retirement, Pesci is another terrifying force of gangster authority, but the inverse of his previous monsters. Buttoned-down and methodical, his face is a death mask of a man forever deciding to end someone’s life. Even (especially) when attempting to win over Frank’s daughter Peggy, he is a terrifying hollow man.
Then there is Pacino. In his first collaboration with Scorsese, Al is the film’s compromised heart. Almost Shakespearean in his swagger, incandescence and hubris, his Jimmy Hoffa is the most magnetic guy in any room.
Entering the film a way into its runtime, Pacino presents a momentary worry that Scorsese has let him go full hoo-hah and riff on his gangster schtick from Dick Tracy (released the same year as Goodfellas). But, as with his Vincent Hanna in Heat, Pacino’s Hoffa plays it big when he needs to dominate but is more complex behind the scenes.
Pacino and De Niro totally sell the bond between the men, and as the inevitable conclusion approaches the film matches the tragedy of The Godfather Part II in soul-selling stakes.
As with previous Scorsese movies, it is the women who throw into relief exactly what these guys are doing. Frank’s daughters act as his conscience in absentia, particularly Peggy (Paquin), her scenes charting the increasing horror with which she regards her father.
Special mention also to Welker White (Goodfella’s drug smuggling babysitter, Lois) as Hoffa’s wife, whose tense moment starting her car shows how no-one is immune from possible retribution.
A supporting cast deliver A-game work, from Stephen Graham’s Hoffa hating mob boss to Ray Romano’s bemused, intrigued union lawyer.
Some will rue that most audiences will watch this on Netflix. But, it is a gift that Scorsese’s gripping crime epic will be readily available to watch, and watch, and watch again.