An extended cinematic love letter to some of the finest actors around, and to the 1960s US underworld, The Irishman is reassuringly brilliant.
Like the best Martin Scorsese movies, it’s about power brokers, mobsters and shady schemers, although it’s often a comedy of manners. This is a very funny film at times, though the overall tone is that of looking back and considering the toll of murder and dark deeds – on the friendships and families of those in the shadows.
Robert De Niro anchors the story, as mob enforcer Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who is a kind of homicidal Forrest Gump. He’s connected to key players with links to some of Oliver Stone’s favourite 1960s subjects: the Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Hoffa’s teamsters, RFK and the shadow of Nixon.
As you will have heard, the film shows De Niro’s character in his 20s, 30s, 40s, right up until the old age home. Scorsese uses computerised de-ageing technology to achieve the effect and it works well—mostly. To my eyes at least, I felt some of the ‘uncanny valley’ where the CGI elements look slightly unreal, especially around the eyes. This is a minor quibble as what the tech actually does is it to enable these actors in their 70s to play 30 years younger.
What grips and takes you in is the bravura acting. Al Pacino gives a wonderful performance as Jimmy Hoffa. He goes full “Pacino” with speeches and grandstanding but it is the lilt of this voice (all sing-song) in quiet moments that makes this the best we’ve seen from Al in many years. Joe Pesci as well. He’s kind of the centre of this world, as the uber-connected mobster, Russell Bufalino who introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa. Pesci speaks quietly and carefully; you sense how much power he has without any of the violence that was his trademark in his Casino and Goodfellas roles.
Over nearly 3.5 hours (never seems long) what you get is a beautifully-written, shot, edited and performed drama about loyalty, friendship and a creeping sense of regret. De Niro is sensational in the closing act when he’s looking back on his murderous life. All this plays out in the backdrop of incendiary times: the rise and demise of JFK, the Unions, Cuba, Fidel Castro etc.
It lingers long in the memory and it’s one to cherish, as we surely won’t see its like again.