The gangster film is a rare breed in today’s movie scene. We get one, two or maybe three each year and the odds of them succeeding aren’t as set-in-stone as back in the days of Scarface, Casino and Goodfellas. But now, the king of the gangster film, Martin Scorsese returns to breath some new life to the genre with a risky gangster epic.
The Irishman is a biographical crime drama following hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recalls his days working for the Bufalino crime family and his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Clocking in at 3 hours and 29 minutes, The Irishman is very long and it’s definitely a slow grind but it manages to fill every minute of its extended runtime with gripping, thrilling and emotional content and a light touch of humour. The narrative is very well paced and manages to cover a lot of ground over a number of years while taking its time to flesh out the inner workings of the Bufalino crime family. As characters come and go and subplots are tied up and introduced over time, the main draw of the story remains, that being Frank Sheeran’s journey, but it’s those extra elements and supporting characters that keep it feeling fresh and engaging right through to the end.
Despite all of the countless characters, new names, moving parts and interconnected relationships the whole journey is very easy to follow. It’s clear a great deal of focus was put in to making this entire story as digestible as possible so you’re not confused by which Tony is which. The pacing definitely helps to let what’s going on in the story really sink in before moving on to the next hit. Robert De Niro’s voiceover adds another layer to the story as it brings additional context to what’s happening on screen and doesn’t feel out of place. This isn’t a story the builds in pace over time, rather it builds in tension while the pace remains quite consistent right to the final moments.
This captivating story is backed by riveting performances from an extensive cast of incredible actors, but it’s the main three who stand out and bring back the true essence of a gangster film. Al Pacino and Joe Pesci are as phenomenal as ever as Jimmy Hoffa and Russell Bufalino and they both bring a certain energy to the story that only they can bring. They slide right back into the atmosphere of a gangster film as if they never left and bring this sense of authenticity to everything that’s going on. Over time you care about both of their characters for different reasons and that’s thanks to the strength of their performances and the chemistry they both share with supporting characters and of course, De Niro.
Robert De Niro delivers an absolutely riveting performance across every minute of this thrilling story. He is the beating heart that ties together this entire story as every subplot and every character flows through him at some point in the film. He is truly captivating in every single scene and not once does he break character, completely embodying the essence of Frank Sheeran. The entire story is seen through his eyes and told through his voiceover, so if he doesn’t work, nothing does. Every line of dialogue is delivered in a way that you’re never sure whether you should fear him, or be endeared by him. That duality is something De Niro executes to perfection and makes a strong claim for a best actor nomination at the upcoming Oscars.
Supporting performances from Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham and many others do an amazing job at crafting this world and making it feel real and whole as oppose to just three big figures walking around an empty world.
That’s what the legendary Martin Scorsese executes to perfection here, crafting a world based in reality that is vibrant, rich with history and full of activity where the actors can bring it to life through their performances. His eye for beautiful cinema is one of the greatest and that’s clear through how stunning the cinematography is here, helmed by Rodrigo Prieto. It really does feel like the gangster films of old right down to its core and that’s all Scorsese’s influence. There are a couple of moments where the editing seems a little bit off, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor aspect of this enormous film.
What makes this film so ambitious and risky is the use of de-ageing CGI throughout the entire film to make De Niro, Pesci and Pacino all appear much younger than they currently are. We’ve seen both good and bad de-ageing tech in the past, and the bad CGI typically results in a film that is hard, if not unbearable, to watch. Thankfully, the incredible de-ageing in this film is by far the best we’ve ever seen, it’s near flawless and as close to “real” as we’ve ever gotten. If someone didn’t know what either of those three legendary actors looked like today, they probably wouldn’t even notice there was any de-ageing tech being used.
Scorsese hits a home run with The Irishman and proves he’s still got a finger on the pulse of how to craft a thrilling and deeply compelling gangster film, especially one that holds its own against the competition in 2019 where the gangster film is an endangered species. Don’t let the long runtime deter you from witnessing this spectacular film. It earns every minute through engaging dialogue, phenomenal performances and a captivating story has grips you right through to when the credits begin to roll. Could we see this Netflix film make a splash at the upcoming Oscars? I’m putting my money on yes.