I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, so it goes without saying that I’m somewhat biased towards Scorsese’s latest movie, THE IRISHMAN (2019), which stars both De Niro and Pacino.
In short, I really liked it.
That being said, as much as I liked it, it’s not one of my favorite movies of the year, nor is it one of Scorsese’s best.
How could it be? With films like TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and GOODFELLAS (1990) in his canon of work, he’d be hard-pressed to match the quality of those masterpieces. Of course, there are a lot of folks out there right now who claim that he has, that THE IRISHMAN indeed ranks as one of Scorsese’s best. I didn’t quite see it that way. In fact, I enjoyed some of his other latter releases better, films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), HUGO (2011), and THE DEPARTED (2006).
THE IRISHMAN chronicles the story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) whose lifelong association with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) led him into a relationship with teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). And while Frank and Hoffa became lifelong friends, Frank’s mob ties led to his involvement with Hoffa’s infamous disappearance.
THE IRISHMAN is long and sprawling, clocking in at a whopping three hours and twenty-nine minutes. Produced by Netflix, in addition to its limited theatrical run, it also premiered on the streaming service, and since I’m not made of money, I opted to watch it inside the comfort of my own living room on Netflix rather than pay for a movie ticket.
It takes its time telling its story, but to its credit it never drags or comes off as boring. I pretty much enjoyed every one of its 209 minutes. The story itself, told in flashback by a very old Frank Sheeran as he looks back at his life, covers events over three decades, from the 1960s to the 1990s, with a lot of the film occuring in mid 1970s. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt, is as compelling as it’s comprehensive. The story is fascinating throughout and the characters convincing. Of course, it helps that it’s based on real people, and that it’s being acted by giants of the field.
Zaillian has an impressive resume, having written the scripts for such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).
Much of the hype surrounding THE IRISHMAN regarded its special effects by Industrial Light and Magic. Since the story takes place over so many years, rather than hire actors to play these characters at different ages, Scorsese decided to use a combination CGI and motion capture effects to film the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino at these different ages. The results are a mixed bag. I thought the changes made to the actors’ faces by far was the best. I have little to complain about here. However, both De Niro and Pacino are in their 70s, and so while their faces looked younger, their bodies and their movements did not. To me, they always appeared like older actors portraying younger men, in spite of the digital enhancements to make them look younger.
As expected, the acting in THE IRISHMAN is powerful throughout. Robert De Niro delivers his best performance since his supporting role in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and his best lead role in years, for me, since RONIN (1998). In fact, watching De Niro in this movie was by far my favorite part of this film.
Al Pacino is also excellent as Jimmy Hoffa, and he enjoys many fine moments as well.
One drawback, however, is that both De Niro and Pacino here are portraying characters who are not Italian, and yet they’re surrounded by the Italian mob. I found this distracting and had a difficult time buying their take on non-Italian characters here.
THE IRISHMAN also features notable performances by acting heavyweights Joe Pesci— who came out of retirement to make this movie— and Harvey Keitel. Ray Romano also delivers an impressive supporting performance as mob lawyer Bill Bufalino.
As much as I liked THE IRISHMAN, I can’t place it up there with Scorsese’s best. It’s fascinating and compelling but rarely disturbing. For a mob movie starring the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, that’s saying a lot that you can watch this film without breaking into a nervous sweat.