This week I finally got around to watching Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”, I’d be putting it off until after the school holidays had ended, purely because at three and a half hours long it wasn’t a film I’d want to watch once they’d gone to bed and I’m certainly not going to watch it whilst they were around.
For this Scorsese has dragged his old pal Robert De Niro back into the fold after spending the past decade or so working with Leonardo Di Caprio, he’s also got Al Pacino in there, Harvey Keitel and has managed to persuade Joe Pesci out of retirement, its no surprise then that this is a gangster movie that uses every single trope that you’d expect.
For his latest Mafia tale, Scorsese has taken a book entitled “I heard you paint houses” by Charles Brandt, telling the tale of truck driver turned Mob hitman Frank Sheeran and his relationships within the mafia but also with those who deal with them, especially labour union leader Frank Hoffa. The Irishman (and the book it’s based on) uses real people and real events, though it uses the theories and allegations aimed at Sheeran in the years since Hoffa’s death (his body has never been found).
We’re told the story in a rather reflective manner. Our first introduction to De Niro’s Sheeran and Pesci’s Russel Bufalino is when they’re much older, they’re driving to a wedding that is also acting as a peace treaty with Al Pacino’s Hoffa. As they make their journey we’re taking back to key events that eventually build-up to the relationship between the labour unionist and his “friends” in the mafia souring, though I don’t really want to say any more than I already have done on the plot.
It’s a lovingly created piece of art, every single scene is given time to breathe, the characters are well fleshed out and it feels very, very intimate at times. Performances are mostly high, De Niro is the best we’ve seen him for a long time and Pacino is allowed to chew up every scene he’s in and be a crazy, unhinged tour de force. Though really, this is what these two actors have spent their careers doing, it’s still great to see them perform at this level as we’ve had quite a few years of them being in rather below par movies. Keitel knocks it out of the park when he’s on-screen too, though he’s not in this quite as much as you’d expect. Stephen Graham, as antagonist Tony Pro is also very, very good. However, it’s Joe Pesci that absolutely steals the show.
Now, that’s not really much of a surprise. I’ve always felt he’s been the lesser appreciated of these actors, he got very easily typecast as the fast-talking, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed bloke with the little guy complex. He does this to great effect in Goodfella’s, My Cousin Vinny and Home Alone, probably his three most famous roles (especially that first one), though nobody came out of the god-awful Lethal Weapon 3 and 4 particularly rosie.
Here, though, he’s different. Here he literally steals every single scene he’s in, even opposite the excellent Pacino. I’ll admit though, I was waiting for him to blow up, start flipping tables, spitting obscenities in peoples faces, but it never came, and I’m really glad it didn’t. Instead, Scorsese seems to play with that typecast, the viewer is waiting for it to happen but he keeps Pesci on a short leash, giving him just enough spit and venom behind his tinted glasses for him to be really menacing. Every word he utters is either a disguised instruction, left for the recipient (and viewer) to interpret themselves, or is on the very cusp of telling whomever that he is not to be fucked with, that he’s the one in control here, and its totally believable.
This is Pesci’s movie.
The subtlety applied to Pesci’s character doesn’t stop there though, the script is littered with this stuff, no one says exactly what it is they’re after. There’s the idea or implication that they know they’re all being watched or that the authorities are trying to infiltrate their ranks, so any discussion, be it crime-related or otherwise, is disguised. Whoever may be listening in may know what they mean, but if any recordings of those conversations made it into court, then well, it could be anything. It is what it is as Russ tells Frank to tell Hoffa.
That’s not to say that its always that way. There’s one interaction, maybe halfway through the film? Hoffa and Pacino have gone to LA to meet with Graham’s Tony Pro, Hoffa and Pro had been in prison at the same time and had gotten into a fight over the latter’s union pension. Anyway, plot details again, Tony Pro (or The Little Guy as they all call him behind his back) is 15 minutes late, Hoffa doesn’t like people being late and wants an apology from Tony, Tony wants an apology for their fight in prison. Frank is looking on, trying not to laugh at the ridiculousness of things but also trying to find a way to calm things down, and well, it is what it is, its quite a funny scene (funny how?), it was played really straight, but it genuinely felt like everyone involved knew the interaction was funny and kept on with the ridiculousness of it, especially De Niro trying to be the sensible guy “12 and a half” indeed!
It’s not perfect though is it? It’s not Scorsese’s best work either, though I don’t think its faults are especially down to him. Due to the age of the cast and the way we keep switching through time as we are told this story, Scorsese opted to use de-ageing technology. I’ve read he didn’t want to use the same method as Marvel use, where they stick balls to the actor’s faces for computers to track. Instead, ILM had to come back with a different tech, which they did and it was used here. Thing is, they all still look really old throughout and the only way I could genuinely tell what time period we were supposed to be in (and thus at what stage of the characters lives) is by using a combination of their wardrobes (though they’re nearly always in suits), the set dressing and the cars they’re using.
De Niro, who the film focuses on the most (and is the titular Irishman), is the biggest issue here, even ignoring the de-ageing tech on his face, he just cannot convincingly perform like a man that is around 30-40 years younger than he actually is, he moves like a man in his 70’s and this is the most obvious in one particular scene where he beats up a shopkeeper. It doesn’t stop the film being enjoyable, and I respect Scorsese’s decision to stick with this cast of actors rather than split things and have a young Frank, Russ etc played by younger actors then the periods where the characters are much older have them be played by Pesci, De Niro and co. Especially as if he had taken that route, we wouldn’t have had this performance from Pesci and if you only watch this film for that, then you’re in for an amazing treat.
People will be put off by that run-time though, but you have to remember, big-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Avengers Endgame have a run time that’s fairly similar, and in all honesty I find that film to be exhausting as it doesn’t let itself breath let alone the audience. The Irishman is totally different, it wants you to be a part of this world, it wants you to be one of the lower-ranked guys looking on as the big guys play their poker game. It reminds me of the scenes in The Soprano’s where Tony, Paulie and Silvio would say around outside a cafe, bitching about everybody else, gossiping and plotting, which is no bad thing, it might have been provoked by me having a pizza whilst watching it (only a Domino’s, I should have bought a frozen Goodfella’s!).
I genuinely enjoyed the experience of sitting down and spending so much time with these characters, it’s rare that I make it through something this length without falling asleep, but I managed it with this so make of that what you will, though I also got to the end wishing we had got a one-off series of ten one hour episodes so we could have had more time with not only Joe Pesci but also the likes of Tony Pro.