Very few filmmakers have ever managed to capture and chronicle American life onscreen the way legendary director Martin Scorsese has for the last five decades. He has established himself as a visual storyteller who is as brilliant as he is versatile, as artistic as he is intelligent, and lastly, as imaginative as he is realistic. This is a man who has represented reality onscreen with a wild style and has managed to craft movies that hinge themselves on how close they are to reality rather than relying on the suspension of disbelief.
Despite most of his latter-day forays into the genre, including Gangs of New York, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman is the culmination of his series of spiritual sequels in a series of historical dramas that began with GoodFellas and Casino. This movie serves as an epic swan song from Scorsese as he says goodbye to a genre he redefined by injecting a hard-hitting sense of reality that most filmmakers romanticize or attempt to make operatic or Shakespearean. Outside of The Godfather films, this is as good as it gets.
The Irishman tells the unforgettable tale of Frank Sheeran; a husband, father, WW2 veteran, meat-truck delivery driver, hitman, high-ranking Teamster official, and one of the top mob associates to the infamous Bufalino mafia family which ruled a vast criminal empire. The film focuses on Sheeran, in his eighties, recounting the details of how he managed to string all of those different lives together by being himself while interacting with towering figures of American history, including Jimmy Hoffa and Russell Bufalino, as well as his personal recollection of his involvement in the murders of “Crazy” Joe Gallo and Jimmy Hoffa.
The Irishman’s official trailer.
The way the movie loops in historical mafia events that are referenced in GoodFellas and Casino really solidifies The Irishman as the final instalment in what could be considered Scorsese’s Mob Trilogy. In GoodFellas, Henry Hill says, “It was a glorious time and wiseguys were all over the place. It was before Crazy Joe took on a boss and started a war, it was before Appalachian…,“ the fallout of which is covered onscreen with the rise and fall of “Crazy” Joe Gallo. In Casino, Ace Rothstein explains how the Chicago mob got a loan from the Teamster’s Pension Fund to purchase the Tangiers Casino and Hotel, and the inner machinations and consequences of the Teamster’s giving out loans to mobsters are covered in detail through the eyes of Jimmy Hoffa here.
Scorsese assembled a towering cast of incredible superstars to make the movie come together, including prestigious names like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and so many others. The movie also features a collection of veteran East Coast actors that have appeared in classic gangster films and shows including GoodFellas, Casino, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire. There’s enough star power here that you could build a house out of the Oscars and other awards the cast has accumulated over the years.
Catch Scorsese on Jimmy Kimmel where he chats about working with an all star cast on The Irishman.
It’s truly amazing to see the gang of classic Scorsese alumni all back together again with Pacino on board; especially considering Pacino had never worked with Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino before and he appeared in both The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in the same year! Pacino is in his seventies, and the fact that he is still pushing himself to take on challenging projects and work with prestigious filmmakers he’s never collaborated with before is truly impressive. Pacino is usually portraying an all-powerful mobster in movies like this, but his performance as Jimmy Hoffa features him as a mob outsider running a legit union mixed up with some shady characters while taking on the Kennedy government and championing working-class folks.
De Niro delivers a character that is both sensitive and stone-cold in a story that centres itself around confessing your sins, looking back on a life of dastardly deeds, and trying to absolve yourself at the end of your life to make peace with your past while accepting death. Joe Pesci is famous for playing homicidal sociopaths that swear like drunken sailors in these types of gangster dramas, but he serves up a surprisingly subtle and steely performance as Russell Bufalino, who thinks before he speaks instead of shooting first and asking questions later.
The use of comedians in serious roles throughout the film is another notable factor that makes this film stand-out within the Scorsese catalogue, which was a very pleasant surprise. Seeing Ray Romano as Bufalino’s lawyer cousin, Jim Norton as Don Rickles onstage at the Copacabana, and Sebastien Maniscalo as the ruthless “Crazy“ Joe is fantastic.
Get a sneak peak of Pacino in the film.
The film acts as a comprehensive overview of mob history: it provides context and backstory by showing the key players at the very top of the organized crime food chain, who are truly like CEO’s rather street-level triggerman, but that’s where Frank Sheeran comes in. Sheeran lived a double life for decades after serving four hundred and eleven days of active battle during WW2, and, with a hardened heart, he was perfectly capable of whacking criminals for Bufalino until he earned a chance to meet Jimmy Hoffa and become a part of American history.
Ultimately, the film is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s seminal work with Unforgiven in the sense that it closed the chapter on a genre and gave a definitive feeling and a distinct sense of a ‘before’ and ‘after’, but, in this case, it was for the gangster genre and not Westerns. The themes of Unforgiven flow through this movie in a strong way as well, considering both films are very much about your past coming back to haunt you, the toll violence takes on your soul, and repenting for your sins. Thanks to Scorsese, you’re never going to see another movie like this one for a very long time, so enjoy this incendiary work from a director that remains at the top of his game.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino
Release Date: November 27, 2019 (United States)
Run Time: 209 minutes