Current Issue #488

Film Review: The Irishman

Producer/director Martin Scorsese’s latest is an almost overwhelmingly epic drama that forms a pseudo-trilogy with his Good Fellas and Casino but is even bigger than those films, and so damn sour.

Drawn by ace screenwriter Steven Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses (a euphemism used throughout), it’s easily Scorsese’s most polarising movie since The Last Temptation Of Christ, and much has been made (at interminable length) regarding its lack of female characters, de-ageing CG tricks, 209 minute running time, and more.

It’s rather hard to know where to start when discussing this one, but first up: compared to Marty’s mob masterpiece Good Fellas and his wilder, uglier Casino, The Irishman feels like an old man’s film, which it sort of is, although Scorsese himself never seems elderly and, even into his late 70s, comes across as energetic and positive (except when he’s talking about Marvel movies, that is). There almost seems to be a cautionary aspect to this mighty story, as if bitterly pointing out that all the criminality in those two previous pics is bad (and not nasty fun like many of his fans think), which is a bit of a stretch, given how much this filmmaker used to love his amorality and ultra-violence.

There’s also much here that’s questionable, including the suggestion that Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran was responsible for the unsolved murder of you-know-who, but as we’ll never really know the truth about that then, well, his claim is as valid as anyone else’s.

De Niro’s 80-or-so Sheeran is in a hospice and, from a wheelchair, recounts to the viewer the elaborate saga of his decades-long involvement with the mob, and we flash back (and sometimes flash back within flashbacks) to discover how he became such a feared hitman. A chance meeting with Pennsylvanian crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), where both are creepily made to look about 50 years younger than they are now, leads to truck driver Frank’s rising through the ranks, and he progresses from thief, to standover man, to murderer, to political assassin.

Helped greatly by Russell’s lawyer cousin Bill (Ray Romano), Frank is eventually introduced to no less than Jimmy Hoffa, who’s played by Al Pacino, a friend of Scorsese’s for almost 50 years, although this is the first time they’ve worked together. Al is a good choice as Hoffa too because both are insatiable show-offs, and his customary ranting and raving here is justified.

A jumble of historical events take place (including the assassination of the supposedly mob-connected JFK) as Frank grows more and more powerful and (perhaps) sociopathic, and then Scorsese finally gets to the best, most sustained and suspenseful sequence here, as we quietly build to what you well know is coming. And then, when that’s all over, the final half-hour or so has a fatalistic quality, as death creeps up on all these guys, and Frank is left sitting alone with that trademark De Niro sneer.

There are many reasons why this really should be better: it’s the ninth (or arguably tenth) collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro; Pesci was dragged at length out of retirement to play Russell, and he’s memorably restrained; another Scorsese pal, Harvey Keitel, has a few scenes as Angelo Bruno (who, like so many here, is introduced with a subtitle noting that he was later shot by persons unknown); and many other players are impressive in smaller roles, such as Anna Paquin, so striking as Frank’s grown-up, deliberately alienated daughter Peggy.

But the most serious problem isn’t the overlength, the CG stuff or the dubious facts: it’s the manner in which this almost apologises for Good Fellas and Casino, and leaves us not with fond memories of some of the best bad guys in the movies, but mean and miserable geezers attempting to absolve their gangster ways.

What a bummer.

Reviewer Rating

The Irishman (MA) is in cinemas now

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