Saturday 8 February 2020

Movie Review: The Irishman (2019)

A sprawling gangland epic, The Irishman weaves a multi-decade story of violence and corruption among mobsters and unions.

At a nursing home, the elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) reminisces about his life, starting in the 1950s when he was an army veteran working as a truck driver in the Philadelphia area. He meets influential mob boss Russell "Russ" Bufalino (Joe Pesci), an associate of respected mobster Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Starting out as a chauffeur and graduating to assassin, Frank proves himself loyal to Russ. Meanwhile, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) runs the powerful Teamsters union, and authorizes pension fund investments in mafia-backed projects.

When Hoffa's position is threatened by rival Tony "Pro" (Stephen Graham), Russell dispatches Frank to prop him up, and the two men become close friends. The appointment of Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General causes Hoffa no shortage of trouble, and he eventually lands in jail. Upon his release in the early 1970s Hoffa insists on wrestling back control of the union, but his behaviour starts to antagonize powerful mob figures, placing Frank in an awkward position.

Reaching deep into the heart and soul of the epic gangster film, Martin Scorsese rolls back the decades and assembles a grand ode to the genre. The Irishman carries echoes of The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In America and Scorsese's own Goodfellas and Casino, but also makes its own mark as a more sombre, contemplative effort. Style, pizzazz and moments of violence underpin the drama without overwhelming it, the emphasis instead placed on men perpetuating an era and then looking back upon it.

Given free rein by Netflix to nurture and create his vision, Scorsese adapts the 2004 non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses (a mob reference to blood-splattered walls) by Charles Brandt, chronicling Frank Sheeran's startling life-long association with the mafia and Hoffa. The film runs for 209 minutes covering events from the 1950s to the early 2000s, but thanks to the stellar cast, a powerful Steven Zaillian script and nimble editing, The Irishman earns its length and never drags.

Scorsese's focus is on strong male characters grappling with necessary relationships, friendships and betrayals over the years. Crusty and cut-throat as they are, the men nevertheless forge bonds of respect, reciprocity and loyalty within their crime ridden world. Frank nurtures twin affinities with Russ and Hoffa and over the years becomes an essential communication bridge, the one person trusted by both the mobsters and union boss. His status transforms from enviable to tenuous as personal and business interests diverge.

The conflicted emotions buffeting Frank's life provide the film with a rich central character, and Robert De Niro delivers one of his best late-career performances to convey the complexity of a man comfortable with killing but yet craving and valuing meaningful interpersonal bonds. De Niro and Scorsese use the film's eloquent denouement to fully round out Frank as an old man using his remaining time for reflection, pockets of regret competing with pride.

Russ Bufalino emerges as the most compelling secondary character, Joe Pesci coming out of retirement to exude the quiet disposition of power. Jimmy Hoffa is more broadly drawn as a scrappy boss who perceives the Teamsters union as his own business. Hoffa has no individual identity without being at the helm, and as a result Al Pacino is constrained into a loud, shouty and repetitive performance.

The three lead actors play their characters across the decades, and superimposed digital technology is used to de-age their faces for the early years. It's a semi-successful experiment: the images appear seamless, but the combination of young faces and clearly old bodies and postures is incongruous.

Despite the mammoth length, Scorsese shortchanges the men's families. The women and children remain unfortunate afterthoughts, occasionally dipping into the narrative to pull on the strings of contrition before dropping right out again.

But The Irishman does not disguise its intentions as an intimate portrait of a few hard men painted on a huge canvass of time. Their business was crime and manipulation, their roles fulfilled according to the underworld code where cooperation yields wealth just as stubborn impedance means death.

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