Combustible Celluloid
 
With: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, Kathrine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jeremy Luke, Aleksa Palladino, India Ennenga, J. C. MacKenzie, Gary Basaraba, Jim Norton, Larry Romano, Jake Hoffman, Patrick Gallo, Barry Primus, Jack Huston
Written by: Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language and strong violence
Running Time: 209
Date: 11/08/2019
IMDB

The Irishman (2019)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Hoffa You Can't Refuse

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman is, partly, a return to the crime films that made his name.

Here's Robert De Niro alongside Harvey Keitel, recalling Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. And De Niro with Joe Pesci is the winning team that powered Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and Casino.

Yet, while those masterpieces were marked by a certain urban grittiness, as well as a kinetic, intoxicating sense of movement, The Irishman is more sober, more melancholy and reflective.

In this way, it's arguably closer to Scorsese's faith-based trilogy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Silence, asking a bigger question: what does it all mean?

When De Niro's hitman Frank Sheeran squeezes the trigger at someone's head, there's no accompanying camera swoop of shock or victory. Here, the act is cursory, dispassionate, stripped of implications.

Scorsese paces his immense, three-and-a-half-hour movie with an effortless, sure touch, incorporating a surprising amount of sprightly humor and small, touching moments.

Frank narrates his long tale as an old man from a rest home. Jumping around in time a bit, he details his early job as a union driver of meat delivery trucks.

He recounts his initial meeting with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), and how he begins skimming from his deliveries to please another powerful mobster, "Skinny Razor" (Bobby Cannavale).

He narrowly avoids jail thanks to a smooth union lawyer (Ray Romano), becomes a hitman for Bufalino, and is finally introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

It's hard to believe, but this is indeed the first time that Pacino and Scorsese have worked together in the fifty years of their respective careers, and Pacino snarls and barks and chews up the scenery with a gusto not seen since Scarface or Dick Tracy.

Frank and Hoffa become close. Frank is promoted to union president, while Hoffa tangles with the Kennedys, goes to jail for a time, and tries to regain control of the unions. Eventually, Hoffa's pugnacity becomes a problem, and Frank is called in.

Frank is a largely passive character, following orders and going where the wind blows him. He pledges loyalty easily, and feels little moral confusion.

In one scene, Bufalino presents Frank with a symbolic ring, one of only three in their underworld circles. "Do you know how strong I just made you?" asks Bufalino. But in reality, strength fades.

In another key scene, Frank beats up a corner grocer, stomping on and breaking his hand, for daring to touch Frank's young daughter Peggy. Peggy grows up into a young woman (played by Anna Paquin) suspicious and afraid of her father.

Frank realizes too late that he is unforgiven, that his path led him away from family as he struggled to get close to power, and, finally, is left with neither.

Written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt's non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses. But though it interprets real-life events, it still feels like an intensely personal film for Scorsese.

Some have called it an "old man's film," in the way that it looks back with wistful perspective and hard-won wisdom. This should not be taken as an affront; The Irishman feels similar to Ingmar Bergman's Saraband, Federico Fellini's Intervista, and Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (in which Scorsese appeared) and Madadayo.

Yet the movie rails against age. It incorporates some astonishing visual effects to de-age the actors and make them look like their younger selves in flashbacks, and it's virtually seamless.

And in the end, the movie is a good way from finding peace or acceptance. It sees Frank's lot in life as unfair, ironic, unfinished. With this masterpiece, Scorsese shows that he's not ready to go gentle into that good night. He proves that this old bull can still rage.

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