At this point, a mafia drama starring Robert De Niro and hailing from Martin Scorsese should be old news. We’ve seen the two make countless classics, most notably among them Mean Streets and Goodfellas.
Yet, Scorsese, for his 24th entry, decides to team up with De Niro and another frequent collaborator, Joe Pesci, to deliver an epic that adds to his repertoire of masterful crime dramas. Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 memoir “I Heard You Paint Houses”, Scorsese’s Netflix film uses de-aging technology to make the aged film veterans appear much younger.
The film tracks the lives of the real-life crime family, the Bufalinos and their working partner Jimmy Hoffa through the course of decades. The film, based on actual events and characters, follows De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, who recounts his time as a World War 2 veteran and subsequently, as a hitman for the Mafia.
The movie begins with Sheeran working as a delivery driver selling to an Italian crime family in Philly, and when this leads him into hot waters, he is rescued by a union lawyer linked to the Bufalinos. It begins his tenure as a hitman for the Bufalinos, as they seize control of the underworld in Philadelphia.
Soon, Sheeran meets Jimmy Hoffa, the head of a union who is pals with the Bufalinos. As Hoffa and Sheeran become fast friends, Sheeran becomes Hoffa’s bodyguard and closest confidant. The film then continues in the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s election, which sees Hoffa being brought behind bars and then eventually killed due to the combined efforts of criminals and the people closest to Hoffa.
That Hoffa eventually gets whacked isn’t much of a spoiler given how much time the film spends gestating that point. In any case, it is the build-up and the character progression that matters. Yes, Irishman is that kind of movie. With Scorsese’s career filled with similar stories, the acclaimed director opts wisely to focus on developing strong characters and exploring the wider social context of the culture of organized crime in America.
In the hands of any other director, the de-aging technology would simply have been a way to draw attention to the film. But Irishman greatly benefits from putting the audience with Sheeran and company through the annals of time. In Scorsese’s capable hands, it is used to explore the melancholic effect of passing time on these duplicitous characters and where their actions ultimately lead them.
It’s powerful stuff, and with De Niro leading the charge, the entire ensemble (which includes the likes of Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, and Anna Paquin) lives up to the film’s potential, making Irishman one of the finest films to come out this decade. De Niro is as potent as ever, delivering one of his best performances in recent years as he shows us the ups and downs of Frank’s life through the ages.
Given De Niro’s history with similar characters, it is baffling how he manages to find an altogether different way to portray this character, making Frank calmer and yet oddly more dangerous than some of his past characters. Joe Pesci also decides to go a different route with his Russel Buffalino, his mellow take on the character is in stark contrast to the way he has done similar roles in the past.
But it is really Al Pacino, who comes in guns blazing with a powerhouse performance and effectively steals every scene he is in. His Hoffa is loud and unruly and yet strangely sweet and charming. It is downright bonkers that this is Pacino’s first film with Scorsese, given how at home he is with this character.
His relationship with Sheeran’s daughter is a good reminder of how skilled the Raging Bull director is of making his characters deeply likable even when they’re quite clearly in the wrong. With a budget that matches that of a big-budget superhero flick, Irishman is a slick and stylish return to form for Scorsese, who had smartly diverged into other genres of filmmaking for the past decade or so.
Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is a tad bit too lengthy, with the film crossing the three-and-a-half-hour mark when it could have easily been trimmed. Yet that doesn’t prevent Irishman from being immensely enjoyable and a sheer joy to sit through.