“The Irishman,” starring septuagenarian powerhouses Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, is based on “I Heard You Paint Houses” Charles Brandt’s book about a man who claims to have offed mobster Crazy Joe Gallo and Teamster Jimmy Hoffa. It’s familiar territory for the trio of stars, all of whom have made a career out of playing wiseguys, and for director Martin Scorsese, but it feels different. The heady, rambunctious filmmaking of “Goodfellas” and “Casino” is gone, replaced by the richly, contemplative tone of a man at the end of his life wondering if he did the right thing.
De Niro is Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, an 82-year-old World War II veteran, truck driver, union leader and hitman. He developed his deadly skills as a combat veteran in Italy, talents he put to use as an associate of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), head of a notorious crime family.
Now wheelchair bound in a retirement home Frank recounts, in flashback, how he rose from smuggler to hitman to Bufalino’s inner circle. “It was like the army,” he says. “You followed orders.” It’s a wild story that reads like it was torn out of the pages of a colorful twentieth century history book. In Frank’s tale crime and politics are bedmates, bound together by power struggles between the underworld and Washington, involvement in elections and even the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Frank rise is accelerated when Bufalino gives him the job of overseeing Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Hoffa ushers Frank through the corridors of power and becomes a family friend but when the Teamster’s actions threaten to expose his mafia co-conspirators Frank is pressed to choose between his loyalty to Hoffa and Bufalino.
Much has been written about “The Irishman’s” three-and-a-half-hour running time and the movie hocus pocus that de-ages the leads, allowing them to play their characters from cradle to grave. Don’t buy into the distractions. Scorsese wrestles the story and technology into shape, making a film that plays like a requiem for the kind of characters that made him famous. Unlike the cocky “Goodfellas,” which is all about the rush, “The Irishman” is ripe with themes of loss and legacy, regret and mortality. It’s about the consequences of the life Frank chose for himself and is a devastating portrait of a forgotten man who did terrible things out of a sense of duty.
Lead by the trio of marquee actors, the cast is uniformly fine. Anna Paquin as Frank’s daughter takes a role made up of sideways glances and terse dialogue and turns it into a damning condemnation of Frank’s work. She conveys depths with just a turn of her head. Bobby Cannavale as the colourfully named Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio and Ray Romano as a mob lawyer add interesting hues to an already colorful story.
The holy trinity, De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, hand in late career work that feels like the culmination of a lifetime of character studies. This is an examination of men who live by a brutal code that leaves little wiggle room for mistakes and disrespect but each actor find ways to humanize their characters. Rich in detail, these actors riff off one another, finding internal rhythms in the repetitious way they speak to one another.
Pesci lets go of his famous “Like I’m a clown? I amuse you?” film persona to present understated work that is equal parts loyalty and menace. Pacino plays an over-the-top character with an unhinged gusto that breathes life into someone who is now a name from the history books but was once, as is said in the film, as popular as Elvis with the working man.
Strong work abounds but De Niro has the resonate moments. The look on his face as (MILD SPOILER ALERT) he makes the grim trip to Detroit to kill his friend is stoic but pained. Placed in an unthinkable position he grims up but you can sense the wheels turning in his head. He fuels a remarkably tense thirty-minute lead up to a senseless act of violence that will have you leaning forward in your seat.
It’s in the film’s elegiac final moments that De Niro brings all of Franks humanity to the fore. “You don’t know how fast it goes until you get there,” he says. It’s a quiet, unhurried analysis of a man’s final days as he looks back that erases the memory of De Niro in movies like “Dirty Grandpa,” reminding us why he was thought of as the best actor of his generation.
“The Irishman” is an event, a movie that feels like the obvious conclusion to the gangster stories the director and cast have been telling for decades.