“The Irishman” is the rare movie that delivers on sky-high expectations. If you say Martin Scorsese is directing an epic mob movie starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, you know you’re in for one of the best movies of the year.
Of course, you might also say, “Haven’t we already seen this movie? What could Scorsese possibly have to say on the subject he hasn’t said several times before?”
Fortunately, it turns out he has quite a bit more to say, with a scope that spans over a half-century and a story that focuses on Jimmy Hoffa, one of the most powerful, organized-crime-associated figures of the 20th century.
Scorsese focuses the film on Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a low-level gangster and hitman who rises through the ranks of a highly influential Philadelphia crime family. Frank is very good at his job, is loyal and asks very few questions, which earns him the confidence of boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci).
Russell trusts Frank so much he sets him up with Teamsters Union president Hoffa (Pacino) and Hoffa and Frank become close friends. “The Irishman” paints a picture of a second-half of the 20th century ruled by violence and the whims of violent men.
Naturally, there are lots of great supporting turns from the likes of Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, and Jesse Plemons, but the heavy lifting in this movie comes from the three leads.
Pesci plays a bit against type as the quiet and measured Bufalino and came out of retirement to play this part. Pacino chews the scenery as only he can as the hot-headed Hoffa and you could argue this is his best work this century.
De Niro is the rock here. He steers us through the history and interconnected personalities with the same affable, workman-like approach Frank brings to his job. It would not be a surprise to see any one of these men walk away with an Academy Award.
There are a couple of behind-the-scenes aspects of this movie that have garnered attention. The first is the extensive use of de-aging technology to show younger versions of the characters as we follow them through the decades. The effect is almost flawless, mostly because Scorsese doesn’t swing for the fences. He’s not trying to give us “Taxi Driver” De Niro or “Raging Bull” Pesci. Instead, it’s more “Goodfellas”- era, which is much less jarring.
The other point of interest is this is a Netflix production and it will debut on the streaming service on Nov. 27, less than a week after it hits theaters here in St. Louis. As a result, major theater chains aren’t carrying the movie as the theater release is only so it can be considered for major year-end awards.
This is unfortunate for those of us who enjoy the big screen experience (and “The Irishman” is certainly worthy of that), but more people will be able to see it as the three-and-a-half-hour run time is a bit prohibitive for your average moviegoer. A double-edged sword to be sure.
But, no matter how you are able to see it, “The Irishman” is an exceptional film and the final 20-minute coda elevates the movie beyond a historical blow-by-blow of the life and times of Jimmy Hoffa to a meditation on the implications of a lifetime of violence. This is a landmark film and one that will likely make a splash this awards season.
“The Irishman” is rated R for pervasive language and strong violence.