At 209 minutes, The Irishman is nearly three-and-a-half hours long and every minute is mesmerising. Based on Charles Brandt’s crime book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004), the film unites the dream team of mob film actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci with legendary gangster film director Martin Scorsese, in a surprisingly nuanced character-driven portrait of mob guys.
The film is a fictionalised account of the life of labour union official and hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and one of the most famous and powerful Americans of all time, labour union leader and president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film takes the legend of these men and fills in the blanks for cinematic effect to tell us an engaging story.
It starts in the 1950s, where Frank Sheeran is a meat packing delivery truck driver who delivers goods to eateries owned by the Italian Philadelphia crime family. Here, he is accused of a crime and successfully defended by union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano). Bill Bufalino and, later, his cousin — mafioso Russell Bufalino — realise that Frank Sheeran would make the perfect recruit. For one, he’s a tough nut to crack and doesn’t open his mouth in front of the feds. For the other, he is a World War II veteran who is accustomed to following orders and killing without question for his superiors.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is unquestionably one of the best films of the year. And the dream team of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci doesn’t hurt
We don’t see the Bufalinos ask these questions. The Irishman is much too nuanced for that. But we can almost hear the wheels turning in their heads as they learn more about Frank Sheeran. This is a pattern throughout the film. The Irishman is a rare modern film that doesn’t insult your intelligence. It offers a lot of subtext to keep its fast-paced yet paradoxically slow-burning story going.
This is a credit to Martin Scorsese’s stunning work from the director’s chair. Expect The Irishman to dominate the awards season. After all, this masterpiece is one of the best movies of the year and easily one of Scorsese’s top three films from his career. It’s also a credit to the fantastic performances from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Ray Romano. The actors are highly skilled, stealing scenes and telling the tale through subtle changes in facial expressions.
I have been waiting to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together on screen for a long time, and The Irishman doesn’t disappoint. Unlike their classic short scene together in Heat (1995), their screen time together here is generous, with chemistry that sizzles in a loving yet tragic friendship. Surprisingly, the fireworks aren’t about violence. Instead, they have a brotherly and compassionate relationship.
Despite being a masterpiece, The Irishman has two glaring problems, and they’re both technical. For a Martin Scorsese film, the editing has some sloppy moments. Some frames are haphazardly cut while a few sequences contradict each other. For example, there’s a scene where Jimmy Hoffa is in a courtroom and someone comes to shoot him. But before he can, Hoffa’s son comes from behind and puts him in a stranglehold. However, in the next frame Hoffa’s son is now seated and Hoffa is the one to punch him first.
The other problem with The Irishman is the use of de-aging technology. The first act of the film where we see a young Robert De Niro is incredibly distracting because the de-ageing technology used to reduce half his age is simply not good enough. While his skin looks younger, the technology can’t help the droopiness of his eyes or his posture. It leads to the uncanny valley effect where Robert De Niro is a weirdly old young man. For example, the young Frank Sheeran beats up a grocer who harassed his daughter. Despite being a younger man, Frank Sheeran kicks haltingly with all the challenges of an old man’s body.
These problems aside, The Irishman is a gripping, tense and sometimes funny drama. Remember, this isn’t Goodfellas, which depicted mobsters getting high on their own success. The payoff isn’t old-school mob-style action but poignancy and understated emotion. As the characters age and the beloved actors grow older, the film almost feels like a tribute from Martin Scorsese to their fantastic careers.
This is a Netflix release and the best way to watch it is after your kids have gone to bed, on a big TV with a broadband connection that supports 4K television, and not your mobile phone. In an age of heavy-handed brainless films, The Irishman is a cinematic gift.
Rated R for pervasive language and strong violence
Published in Dawn, ICON, December 8th, 2019