Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “The Irishman,” sees the director returning to his “gangster” film roots. If you’ve seen “GoodFellas,” “Casino” or “Mean Streets,” you’ll know what to expect. At times, this can make the colossal three-an-a-half-hour run time of the film a bit of a slog, but all in all, the director delivers the goods once again. Compelling characters portrayed by world-class actors and a story that doesn’t cut any corners makes this one of Marty’s better pictures.
Our main anti-hero is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who has served as a Teamsters Union hitman for the better half of a century. He sits in a nursing home and recounts the tale of his life of crime. After serving in World War II, he met Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), an Italian mafioso who employs him as a heavy. He roughs up debtors and puts the screws to those that cross the mob. Frank proves his loyalty and is eventually put into contact with the president of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The bond between Frank and Jimmy grows exponentially over the decades until changing times and alliances create a divide between them.
The story of Jimmy Hoffa seems to be the main interest of Scorsese. At one point the narrator comments on how most young people don’t remember the man, but in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was arguably as powerful as the U.S. president. This fact is supported by a larger-than-life performance by Pacino. The actor delivers a late-career spectacle, filling every scene with life and emotion. He shows us a man whose charisma and ambition led him to the top of an empire and how those same traits led to his downfall. There’s also something melancholy about how breaches in etiquette and moral decency affect this often ruthless man. It shows how fragile some tough guys truly are.
The delicate nature of masculinity as a whole is something that the film also tackles beautifully. In Frank, we have a character who responds to the world through violence. The only way he knows how to solve problems is by applying pressure. This alienates him from most of his loved ones, including his oldest daughter, Peggy. Frank is keenly aware of this fact. He comments on it several times throughout the film and discusses it at length from his wheelchair in the nursing home. So what Scorsese is actually showing us is a man who sees all the ways he is going wrong but is completely incapable of changing his actions. A main character who is simultaneously in the front row seat of the movie about his life. This reflective characteristic is made all the more impactful by De Niro’s performance. As an actor who has made his name portraying violent men, there is something bittersweet about seeing his aged face commenting upon violence.
Which brings me to another important detail of the film, aging. “The Irishman” uses CGI to de-age its main characters. Throughout most of film history, a story like this would likely have been told with separate actors of varying ages, or with younger actors and some heavy makeup. But Scorsese made the decision to cast De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci; all of whom are in their early to late 70s. At first, this might seem like a strange decision, but overall I didn’t find it that distracting. In fact, with the themes of aging and decay being so prevalent in the story, it seemed all the more appropriate.
“The Irishman” takes a while to get started. It also takes a while to finish. But that in-between section where it actually tells a story, that part is pretty great. It proves that there is a reason names like Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have so much weight to them. These are some of the best filmmakers to ever do it, doing it again. If you have three-an-a-half hours to spare, you could do a lot worse than Netflix and chilling with this picture.