In a match made in cinematic mobland heaven, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, and Joe Pesci come together under the guiding light of the great Martin Scorsese for a three-and-a-half-hour sprawling epic about the man who claims to have killed Jimmy Hoffa. It’s exactly what you would expect (given all the parties involved), and though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it still feels as though Scorsese, along with his acting buddies, is firmly in his comfort zone. The Irishman is, at its core, a Godfather/Goodfellas mash-up that doesn’t exactly transform modern cinema, but proves yet again that if you want to make a solid mob movie, you need Scorsese at the helm and De Niro and Pacino tough-guying it up.

We begin with a slow tracking shot through a nursing home that lands on Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who, we learn through the movie-long flashback, first got into “the game” after his job as a meat delivery guy in 1950’s Philly provided him with the opportunity to meet Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), the head hitman for notorious crime boss Angelo Bruno (Keitel). Bruno and Russell Bufalino (Pesci) ran the city, and before long Sheeran was welcomed into the fold. At the same time, union leader Hoffa (Pacino) was starting to make a name for himself, and, due to his ties with the Bufalino family, became fast friends with Sheeran.

Those are just a handful of the dozens of moving pieces at play in The Irishman, which basically tracks one man’s mob life over the course of 40 years. De-aged through the “magic” of digital artistry, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino turn in definitively bravura performances across the board but can’t help the look of a person who’s been Photoshopped (think only a slightly better version of the CGI mess that was Jeff Bridges in 2010’s Tron: Legacy). There’s no doubting that it’s distracting and partially derails what may have otherwise been one of Scorsese’s best—among the rare air of GoodfellasMean StreetsTaxi Driver, and The Departed.

The script by Steven Zaillian, based on former prosecutor Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (which has been frequently and comprehensively debunked), is a masterwork of language and innuendo, giving us subtle actions and mute scenes where a less-refined screenwriter may have been compelled to go in the opposite direction. Two scenes of note come to mind: the mob hit on Crazy Joey Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco)—which Sheeran brilliantly narrates with all the matter-of-factness of a man reading a grocery list—and a later scene with Sheeran’s grown daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) questioning her dad after she figures out he was the one who bumped off Hoffa. Paquin speaks only seven words in the entire film, but her hauntingly understated work may be the most memorable of them all.

There can be little debate about the amount of talent and hard work and attention to detail that went into The Irishman, and though it certainly stands as one of the finest films of the year (as well as, clearly, one of the most ambitious), it’s hard to keep from thinking it could have been just a little bit more had Scorsese given us something that we couldn’t see coming from a mile off.


4/5 stars