After a lot of publicity surrounding the digital de-aging of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for the project, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman arrives on Netflix, and it’s a typically very good offering from the auteur. It has a few problems, but the opportunity to see the likes of De Niro, Pacino and Joe Pesci in a movie together under the Great One’s tutelage more than overrides the shortfalls.
The film is based on the book about Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) called I Heard You Paint Houses (which is actually the title listed in the opening credits). Sheeran was a labor union official and occasional hitman who had ties to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The film, like the book, claims that he was the actual triggerman in the assassination of Hoffa.
The film covers a long timespan. We see Sheeran from his 30s up until shortly before his death in his 80s. All ages are played by De Niro, and the much ballyhooed digital de-aging of De Niro (along with Pacino and Pesci) is mostly a bust. There are moments where De Niro looks perhaps a tad younger than his 76 years (he might pass for 58), but it always looks like bad makeup, dye jobs and funky lighting rather than high-tech effects masterfully at work. Plus, these are old voices coming out of digitally enhanced, oddly smooth faces.
Distracting effects aside, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are priceless in their parts, no matter what age they depict. Scorsese has made a nice companion piece to his gangster epic Goodfellas—an ugly depiction of the loneliness and alienation that results from things like shooting your friends in the head.
While Goodfellas had a rather likeable and unintentionally funny antihero in Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, none of the main guys in this movie are likeable, especially Sheeran. De Niro depicts the guy as a meathead, a lackey who takes orders from the likes of Pesci’s Russell Bufalino and Pacino’s Hoffa. Sheeran provides few excuses for even uncomfortable laughter. He’s quietly despicable and evil at his core.
Pacino is the film’s most fun as a blustering, ice cream-obsessed Hoffa. He’s also the angriest guy in the movie, with Pacino sinking his teeth into many an opportunity to go from zero to 100 in mere seconds. Pacino shares a couple of scenes with Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano, one of the men suspected of participating in Hoffa’s eventual disappearance in ’75. Pacino and Graham square off in a way that goes right into the “Best Pacino Moments” time capsule.
The film has an epic scope at over three-and-a-half hours. I suspect there will be a lot of pausing for bathroom and snack breaks in one’s household due to its presence on Netflix, and that’s too bad. I think Scorsese should’ve put an intermission in the middle, perhaps choosing his preferred moment for the viewer to gather themselves up for the finale—a fine finale at that.
For Scorsese fans, seeing De Niro and Pesci sharing scenes again, talking Italian and dipping bread in wine is a holiday season cinematic gift like no other. This is De Niro’s best work in years, and Pesci gets a chance to play subdued in a Scorsese flick, which pays major dividends. He depicts Bufalino as a quiet, polite, extremely dangerous man, and it’s mesmerizing.
With the decade coming to a close, The Wolf of Wall Street remains champ as Scorsese’s best effort in the last 10 years. That’s more high praise for Wolf than a putdown of The Irishman, which is a fine film in its own right, if something short of a masterpiece. It’s a movie that fits comfortably in the gangster genre, while perhaps firmly shutting the lid on it as far as Scorsese and De Niro are concerned. If it’s their last film together, they’re going out on a high note.