Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Debi Mazar, Chuck Low, Frank DiLeo, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent, Frank Adonis, Catherine Scorsese, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Suzanne Shepherd, Illeana Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Henny Youngman
Written by: Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 145
Date: 09/11/1990

GoodFellas (1990)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gangster Sauce

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I went to see GoodFellas on opening day in 1990, my hopes were high. I had seen and loved Martin Scorsese's gritty trilogy, Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull (1980). In the 1980s, Scorsese was still doing good work, but it was slick, MTV stuff like After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986), and there was already enough of this kind of slick product. At the end of 1989 film critics overwhelmingly voted Raging Bull the best film, and Scorsese the best director, of the decade.

And now, Scorsese was returning to form, to the greatness of Raging Bull. He was doing a gangster film, like Mean Streets, with Robert De Niro, and he was going to blow all of us away. He blew nearly everyone away except me. GoodFellas left me a little let down. It was a gangster movie all right, but it was slick-looking and not gritty like Mean Streets. De Niro was hardly in it, and when he was, he was just doing his old schtick, almost sleepwalking. Even worse, the lead, Ray Liotta, as Henry Hill, gave off this creepy vibe that left me distanced from him. Sure, I liked Joe Pesci in the movie (was I one of the few people who remembered him from Raging Bull?), and I loved the paranoid-cocaine-helicopter sequence at the end, but overall I was left unsatisfied.

It received six Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Lorraine Bracco), Editing, and Screenplay, but only Joe Pesci won for Best Supporting Actor. It famously lost in every category to Dances With Wolves, which is considered a huge upset by Oscar hounds, and it probably added to the movie's legend. Critics everywhere gave their blessings. I wondered if it was a case of residual hero-worship from Raging Bull. Or was I the only one who was wrong? I went to see the film again, and had the same reaction. A year later, I watched it a third time on home video, and still could not change my mind.

In 1997, Kundun was, for me, a return to form; a masterful, quiet, telling of battles raging beneath tranquil surfaces. The Dalai Lama faced a decision when there is no decision to make. I also saw Scorsese's documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which showed me his passion for movies and re-ignited mine. With a new respect for the man, I re-watched GoodFellas eight years later. I think I finally get it.

I still think Ray Liotta is miscast. He is wired, and his high can be attractive, but he is incapable of warmth and he can't grab hold of the audience and bring us along for the ride. His career has faltered since, and I know that GoodFellas was an isolated incident for him (perhaps the same as Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil), so it can be forgiven. (In 1990, Liotta was hailed by the media as the Next Big Thing. I disagreed, and I therefore resisted him in GoodFellas.)

GoodFellas is based on the nonfiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. Henry Hill is a half Sicilian, half Irish boy who dreams of entering the mob. He does, and he ends up in a knot with Jimmy Conway (De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci). The wonderful Paul Sorvino plays Paulie, the "godfather" of the group. Lorraine Bracco is fine (as has some great lines) as the good girl who falls in love with Hill.

At first the young Hill is mesmerized by the glamour and the power of his position. He comes home dressed in an expensive suit and his mother says, "you look like a gangster!" The movie is excessively violent, in order to let us know that the mob is not just glamour and power. The movie opens with a scene from the middle of the movie, which has Liotta, De Niro and Pesci in a car listening to a thumping noise and wondering what it is. They pull over and open the trunk to find a half-dead man. "He's still alive!" they scream. Pesci viciously attacks him with a steak knife and finishes the job.

Hill starts off selling cigarettes and doing bank robberies but soon he will get into cocaine, which will be his downfall. As the movie progresses, more and more people get "whacked" in order to cover up smaller crimes. Pretty soon, everyone we know has a death mark.

Passages of the movie are truly alive with paranoia, fear, and danger. GoodFellas is like a horror movie with true-to-life horrors. Scorsese even shows us how most of the tricks are done, but the basic horror is still there. In one scene, a goodfella gets whacked for talking too much. Pesci slits his throat from the back seat of a car. In the next scene, two kids find the dead bodies, and the piano coda from "Layla" comes up, suggesting sadness, regret, and a longing for things past, before we knew such horrors existed.

I still don't think GoodFellas hits as close to the bone as Mean Streets. In that early film, Scorsese brought together all his dreams and nightmares and set them in the neighborhood he knew so well. It was exciting, scary, emotional, and personal. GoodFellas has the exciting and scary parts down, but I can't see where Scorsese belongs in it. He seems to be just simply preaching to us that the mob is bad, but in a way that's alive and thrilling. I've come around to admiring this big monster of a movie.

Warner Home Video has finally made up for perhaps one of the worst DVDs ever released. The original pressing of GoodFellas, released at the dawn of the DVD revolution in 1997, was so botched that viewers actually had to flip the disc over halfway through the movie. Now we have a beautiful 2004 two-disc set with the movie running all 145 minutes on one disc without a break. It includes two commentary tracks, one by Scorsese and a host of other contributors, albiet one at a time. The second one includes none other than Henry Hill himself with former FBI Agent Edward McDonald. Disc two includes four featurettes, including one in which several younger filmmakers (Joe Carnahan, Jon Favreau, Antoine Fuqua, the Hughes Brothers and Richard Linklater) profess their undying love for the film. There's also a four-minute short comparing some of Scorsese's sketches with the final scenes. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer and comes with optional English and Spanish language tracks, plus optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.

In 2015, Warner Home Video released a 25th anniversary Blu-ray edition, mastered in 4K digital, and my admiration for it continues to grow. I confess that my initial disappointment came as a result of my own expectations -- my desire that the film be more like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. I didn't make allowances for what the film actually was, or had the potential to become. I was too hard on Liotta, who has grown into a very potent performer, although, to be fair, GoodFellas isn't really a film about performances any more than 2001: A Space Odyssey was; it's a film of sensations. As shown further in some of Scorsese's later, exuberant work, GoodFellas is about capturing and sustaining a kind of energetic high, and watching it as it increases, decreases, and finally becomes frenetic and harried. It's a film I enjoy watching again and again every few years, and it's one that I keep in my personal library.

The new Blu-ray includes all the features mentioned above, plus a new, 30-minute featurette, as well as a nice little hardcover book full of pictures and an essay, and a letter from Scorsese.

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