Film Review: ‘The Irishman’: Martin Scorsese’s Magnificent Mafia Magnum Opus

Updated: 2019-11-07 10:10:16

R | | Biography, Crime, Drama | 27 November 2019 (USA)

Robert De Niro. Al Pacino. Joe Pesci. Harvey Keitel. Martin Scorsese. On the strength of those names alone, you know you have to see this movie or miss out on an instant classic that will inform American pop culture for years to come.

What about these guys being past their prime, to the point that a newfangled youth-ification technology is needed in order to stretch the time spans they can believably play? It matters not. It’s a little fake, but it allows all these elder statesmen of mob-storytelling in America to have themselves a grand finale. And at three and a half hours—it’s quite grand.

Robert De Niro underwent some techno-youth-ification in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)

But is it good? Of course. Fabulous. It’s Scorsese. How could it not be grand? Uplifting? Mob movies? I saw a musician Instagram meme recently about the romance of the road. Musician wannabe says, “You’re in a band? Wow, I bet you get to see a lot of really cool places!” Photos of really cool places: the backseat of a van, a highway, a seedy gas station bathroom.

Directors Francis Ford Coppola and Scorsese have romanticized mob life in America, but, like a seedy gas station bathroom, mob life’s not glamorous. It’s killers; it’s dangerous human animals. Limited-education-having, flashy, nouveau-riche predators. Just like the Russian mob. Just like mobs everywhere.

A good antidote to getting caught up in romantic notions about the Mafia is to have a look at Sicilian crime-scene photographer Letizia Battaglia’s work during one of the bloodiest Cosa Nostra crime sprees in Italy. That’ll sober up your romantic notions quick; all your musings: Ah! Look at what excellent cooks they are, slicing that garlic clove with a razor blade, who knew? No wonder Italian food is so excellent!  Battaglia’s photos will throw ice water in your face. It’s an excellent chaser to follow a film like “The Irishman.”

An Italian-Speaking Irishman

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) learned to speak Italian fighting the Nazis, in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)

Irish-American Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), home from fighting Nazis, is driving hulking, bloody sides of beef around in freezer trucks for a living. Not being a particularly ethical fellow, he sees a business venture and starts stealing from his delivery trucks, giving the beef to Philly-based Felix DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale).

Robert De Niro in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)

He’s soon taken note of by Philly “capo di tutti i capi” Russell Bufalino (a never better Joe Pesci), who takes a shine to Frank, in part due to Frank’s ability to speak fluent Italian (having been stationed in Italy), and starts improving Frank’s status.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, L) and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)

Bufalino introduces him to mobbed-up union boss Jimmy Hoffa (a rip-roaring Al Pacino). The Mafia, in this telling, gets President John F. Kennedy elected. Which means Kennedy’s in mob-debt. But JFK doesn’t get Cuba reopened to mob business. And then chief counsel Bobby Kennedy harasses the mob legally. So it makes sense that some capo di tutti i capi said, of Kennedy, that phrase you hope you never hear the mob saying: “He’s gotta go.”

“The Irishman” suggests who really shot Kennedy. (Netflix)

Meanwhile, Frank’s become a hitman for Bufalino, while becoming bosom buddies with Hoffa, who, with his uncontrollable temper, eventually aggravates enough capi di tutti i capi that they all finally agree—Hoffa’s “gotta go.” So much of the movie is about Irish Frank trying to calm the Italian bosses down, regarding his anger-management-needing friend.

Then, circa 1975, Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino, with wives in tow, drive to Hoffa’s home base of Detroit (with lots of amusing wife cigarette breaks) to attend their lawyer’s (Ray Romano) daughter’s wedding. Hoffa soon after disappears, forever.

2 men, 2 women in a car
(L–R) Joe Pesci, Kathrine Narducci, Aleksa Palladino, and Robert De Niro roadtrip to Detroit in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)


Hoffa is a tailor-made Al Pacino role if there ever was one—the kind that makes you chuckle slightly, in awe and appreciation at the towering rages, so electrifying are they.

Al Pacino (R) plays Jimmy Hoffa in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)

De Niro is staid, reliable, slightly uncomfortable, seeing that his character is basically a glorified gofer to very dangerous men. Frank needs to tread carefully for survival’s sake. De Niro shows us that man. Late in the 3.5-hour run-time, Frank confesses to a priest in a senior home, and you can feel the festering soul-rot of the karma he carries with him and hopes to absolve himself of.

This is Joe Pesci’s best work to date, and it must said of him, he actually looks handsomer at age 76. His is a Mafioso don of restraint and wisdom and even empathy. Whether the real Bufalino had those traits is debatable.

Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)

Anna Paquin, who plays Frank’s daughter, is the silent conscience of the film. She says two sentences throughout, and yet powerfully holds the film’s moral center through her unspoken disavowal of her father’s dark profession. Feminists have made much of her lack of lines, but when it comes to acting, it’s not always about, “Don’t just stand there—do something!” The more powerful choice is sometimes, “Don’t just do something—stand there.”

Anna Paquin, as the daughter of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), provides the film’s moral compass. (Netflix)

Magnum Opus

Tour de force. Last hurrah. Since Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 “The Godfather,” these are the men who have shown us the seamy underbelly of American organized crime. This is our American reality, so it’s good that all this Hollywood royalty of pretend mobsters has shone a spotlight on it and exposed it. This is the final chapter; this will not happen again. They had to coax Pesci out of acting retirement to do it. It’s a Hollywood mob swan song.

So what are the takeaways? My takeaway was, not having been particularly interested in Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, a kind of a “Doh!” moment when it was suggested that it was a mob hit.

Another takeaway: I’ve always wondered if you put De Niro up against Pacino, who wins? They were pretty evenly matched in 1995’s “Heat.” But after “The Irishman,” I say Pacino’s the better actor. At least in this movie.

A takeaway scene from “The Godfather” was Clemenza comedically telling Michael Corleone that he didn’t silence the pistol so as to get rid of “annoying” innocent bystanders—this line is paid tribute to in “The Irishman.”

Lots of guns on a wall
Irish hitman Frank Sheeran’s personal armory in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)

What’ll stick in my mind long after “The Irishman” has faded is that when the mob says to you, “I heard you paint houses” (the title of the biography on Sheeran). It means that they know you paint houses red. Blood red. And they could use a man like you.

The book by Charles Brandt that “The Irishman” is based on: “I Heard You Paint Houses.” (Netflix)

’The Irishman’
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston
Rating: R
Running time: 3 hours, 29 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 27 (Nov. 1, limited release)
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch
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