At this point in his career, director Martin Scorsese can do almost anything he wants to do. The success he’s had during his 60 years in Hollywood, which now includes 25 feature films, is second-to-none, and has earned him the right to deliver whatever material he so desires. In the case of his latest, The Irishman, that’s a 209-minute epic about the mob, unions, and the death of Jimmy Hoffa.
The film centers on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who’s working as a truck driver in the 1950s when he becomes connected with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the leader of the Bufalino crime family. Soon, Frank is doing all sorts of work for Russell, including killing the occasional person who steps out of line.
Their mutual interests lead them into the orbit of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who has no trouble throwing his weight around to get his way. For years, Sheeran essentially plays both sides, acting as enforcer for Bufalino and working his way up the ranks with the Teamsters for Hoffa.
Scorsese, working from a script by Steve Zaillian, is more than happy to get down into the weeds of both the crime business and union politics. There is no point A to point B in this movie, as the timeline switches so often that it’s nearly impossible to keep up. Scenes take place over the course of 50 years, with both De Niro and Pesci sporting multiple different looks to demonstrate aging and de-aging (Pacino is also de-aged to a lesser degree).
It’s here where the much-vaunted de-aging technology crops up. And, for the most part, the computer-generated effects work seamlessly. Other than the initial curiosity of seeing the two 76-year-old actors look years younger than they actually are, the nature of the story takes away any intense scrutiny of whether their faces look exactly right. In fact, other than the shockingly blue eyes De Niro sports throughout, it’s when De Niro and Pesci are shown to be their age or older when their faces become the most interesting.
Scorsese has long loved using voiceovers to further the plot of his films, and the technique is in full effect in The Irishman. In an odd way, the voice-over by De Niro is highly reminiscent of Ray Liotta’s voiceover in Goodfellas, as his character — like Liotta’s Henry Hill — moves from lowly underling to the top of the food chain. The narration, unlike in some other films, enhances the understanding of the film instead of feeling like a superfluous addition.
The movie hinges on the performances of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, and each is as good as he has ever been. They’re so famous that they can sometimes be viewed as caricatures of themselves, but this film is a reminder that all three are among the best actors working today. A bevy of great supporting actors like Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, and more keep the film humming throughout.
It is fortunate the film has a wealth of acting talent as the extended running time definitely takes its toll. After running for a few weeks in theaters, most viewers are likely to watch the film at home on Netflix, and the ability to take a break every now and again will likely enhance the pleasure of watching the film. The plot goes down so many similar storylines that, in the theater, it feels like Scorsese could have cut an hour off of the film and not sacrificed the story.
Scorsese has been making movies so long that he’s been counted out multiple times before roaring back and showing how capable he truly is. While perhaps a step below his other classic films, mostly because of its length, The Irishman shows that the master filmmaker still knows how to deliver a crackerjack story.
The Irishman is currently playing at Landmark River Oaks and Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra. It will debut on Netflix on November 27.