Martin Scorsese (director)
3h 29mins (length)
07 November 2019 (released)
08 November 2019
There are two names synonymous with the gangster movie genre. One is Francis Ford Coppola. The other is Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese's latest, The Irishman, based on the late-in-life confessions of mafia hitman Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran, maybe the ultimate coda to a style of film that has mostly fallen out of fashion as a major cinematic event.
For a start, it stars Goodfellas alumni Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and The Godfather's Michael Corleone himself, Al Pacino. But it does not open with guns and gangsters, rather De Niro's Sheeran and Pesci's unassuming mob boss Russell Bufalino taking what appears to be a retiree's road trip.
It could be Oldfellas. But we quickly flashback to their first meeting several decades ago on the same highway when Russell met Frank, a meat truck driver, and taught him how to fix a loose fuel cap.
With good contacts, like Russell's mob lawyer brother Bill (Ray Romano), and Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), the sky is the limit for Frank. He's an honest crook and a union man who does not ask questions - traits that are appreciated as he rises from driver to mob assassin. Give him a gun, a place, a time, and a request to "paint houses" and he'll tell you he does his "own carpentry". The former code for killing people, the latter disposing of a body.
Due to his mob connections, Frank meets Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of The International Brotherhood of Teamsters union. A vain but vulnerable man, who like Russell, turns to Frank as a dependable figure in a cutthroat business - even if he is the one who literally would do the throat-cutting.
It is worth pausing to take in some of the history, because Scorsese wants us to. The film is peppered with historical vignettes - such as references to the Kennedys, the Bay of Pigs, and the Kefauver hearings, and an America moving from one world - the black and white era of all-powerful mafioso, to the more modern, colourful, era.
Late in the film Hoffa, it is said, is the most famous guy you didn't know about. And we don't. Not properly - if you're under 50, he's an infamous missing person's case. Scorsese is at pains to point out how feted he was - a celebrity union organiser as powerful, in the eyes of many, as the president. A shameless populist and crook - all through organised labour and the immense Teamsters' pension fund.
Pacino gives his best performance in decades as Hoffa, tearing up a scene and then reconstructing it. He doesn't resemble the real Hoffa much but convinces utterly as a man who is terrifying, friendly, kind, weird, corrupt, and arrogant beyond belief. De Niro is also superb as Frank. It is his tragedy - as all mob movies are - we follow. Conflict is written on every wrinkle and De Niro shrugs as corruption leads to glory, then fear, then a fall.
One talking point about the film has been its de-ageing technology. Special effects are something you associate more with Marvel than Marty, but they are so well done as to be almost indiscernible here. That's partially down to the fact that the de-ageing doesn't turn O.A.P.'s into youngsters, but middle-aged men - meaning that the smoothing of lumps, bumps, and wrinkles is never too absurd - but it's also down to the direction and performances. Both are note-perfect and in tune with Scorsese at his best. The legendary director's attention to detail feels like it's genuinely giving you a window into the past, a lost world that, in fact, was the one that spawned some of his classics like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. But that might be, like the mob chiefs who assumed their rule would never end, gone forever.
At more than three hours long, The Irishman isn't for everyone, but it's a quick three hours due to the mesmerising performances and clever division of the film into tonally very different acts and scenes. There's action, humour (particularly in a brilliant cameo by Stephen Graham), nostalgia, sorrow and regret, planted throughout.
All this makes The Irishman one of Scorsese's masterpieces. It may not be for everyone, but for fans of his films, or even those who have absorbed their themes via osmosis, it's a perfect, mournful bookend to one of cinema's truly great careers, and a genre that, like the Western, maybe fading as blockbuster material.