Film review ‘THE IRISHMAN’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Martin Scorsese’s iconic gangster films such as Goodfellas and Casino have given us fascinating insights into the history and mechanics of American organised crime and the male rituals that define gangster behaviour. These films have an amphetamine-fuelled rock’n’roll rush which, while exhilarating, don’t leave a lot of space for emotional introspection or a critique of gangster culture. In his latest and rightfully lauded film, The Irishman, Scorsese revisits but also re-evaluates the attitudes of his earlier classics for a more sombre examination of American mob crime and its impact on individuals.

Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the film depicts the, at times, inadvertent criminal ascendancy of Irish-American truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro). Keen to earn more than a driver’s wage to support his burgeoning family, Jack accepts the patronage of local mob Mr Fixit Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Initially required to misplace the odd meat delivery, Jack is soon asked to dispose of a few problem mob associates and people who forgot to pay their gambling debts. While depicted as an essentially decent man, the film shows that, having waded into a river of blood, Frank was never going to be able to emerge clean. Frank’s life becomes more complicated when he’s asked to become a minder for Teamster’s Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  He soon finds himself trapped in an agonising position between Hoffa, whom he now calls a close friend and the union and mob connections who want Hoffa out of the way.

In his best performance for 20 years, de Niro superbly conveys the suppressed anguish of someone forced to deal with the treachery that lurks under the surface of criminal comradery as well as the guilt and personal fallout of his violent life. His later scenes as he counts the cost of his actions are among the most poignant in de Niro’s and Scorsese’s body of work. De Niro portrays Sheeran as street smart but more comfortable as a dutiful soldier rather than a forcefully charismatic leader like the people for whom he works. Within his depiction of this taciturn character, de Niro’s able to convey volumes with mere facial expressions. This is despite the fact that, in scenes set in the 1950’s and 60’s, he’s been digitally de-aged. Thankfully he never looks like a computerised apparition or loses any humanity.

Pesci, who emerged from retirement after much coaxing to do this film, makes Bufalino a wonderfully complex figure. He brings a touching humanity to the role as well as an unmistakable menace. Buffalino’s not the volatile personality Pesci played in Goodfellas or Casino but an avuncular figure who has the ability to quietly pronounce death sentences. Al Pacino plays Jimi Hoffa as Al Pacino, which is perfectly fine. His performance bursts with the sorts of over-the-top gestures we’ve seen in countless Pacino characters and in so doing he makes Hoffa a potent screen presence. As if that trio didn’t have cinephiles salivating enough, the film also features Harvey Keitel as mobster boss Angelo Bruno. Unfortunately, Keitel appears fleetingly and has only a few snippets of dialogue. While Bruno is clearly a powerful player in the criminal fraternity that controls Frank’s fortunes, Keitel simply isn’t given the screen time to establish the indelible performance for which we might have hoped.

Almost as much as a story about Sheeran and Hoffa, this film is a potted history of crime and its nexus with politics, particularly in the 1960’s. The film may resurrect a few conspiracy theories as it links the mob to a host of prominent assassination attempts and other misdeeds involving famous figures.

Such an epic story needs time to play out properly and The Irishman is nearly three and a half hours. This length may prove a little taxing for some, particularly if they’ve been raised on today’s hyper-manic action films but its length will be welcomed by Scorsese fans.

The Irishman makes a fine companion to Goodfellas and Casino but ultimately with this film Scorsese provides the sobering message that beyond organised crime’s violence, the cruellest forces of all are human frailty, mortality and loss.

Nick’s rating: ****1/2

Genre: Crime drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Martin Scorsese.

Release date: 21st Nov 2019.

Running time: 209 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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