Cert 15 209mins Stars 5
Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese return to the mean streets of mafia movies with this definitive final word on epic crime dramas.
This ninth feature collaboration is their first since 1995’s Las Vegas classic, Casino, and it sees a road trip across the US to Detroit begin an exploration of the second half of the 20th century from the viewpoint of a Second World War veteran.
Irishman Frank Sheeran kills on command without question, has a working knowledge of explosives, and speaks Italian after serving overseas, making him a perfect recruit for the mafia.
Robert De Niro takes centre stage as Sheeran, who’s looking back on his career as a hitman for the Bufalino crime family, and his friendship with Jimmy Hoffa.
Al Pacino delivers acting fireworks as Hoffa, infamous boss of the powerful Teamsters Union, who went missing in 1975 and was eventually declared dead seven years later.
Hoffa frames social conflict as one of blue collar workers against big business and government. I haven’t heard the word ‘solidarity’ so often since Polish union leader Lech Walesa was challenging Communism in the 1980’s, as Hoffa’s rallying cry in the capitalist US it seems even more incendiary.
Pride, greed and incompetence variously account for the downfall of many mob members, but Sheeran’s tragedy is he’s unable to fathom his own responsibility for his final circumstance.
This sprawling epic soars with artistic brilliance on every level, is superbly acted, rich in period detail, gorgeously photographed and has a tremendous soundtrack.
With death very much on its mind, it’s a reflective, sometimes somber experience, punctuated by shocking moments of murder, several beatings and occasional vehicle explosions. Plus at times it’s very funny.
After several years making less than stellar movies, there’s a sense of De Niro and Pacino rousing themselves for one last majestic effort to consolidate immortality as the greatest screen actors of their generation.
Being a student as well as a scholar of filmmaking, Scorsese continues to experiment with technology, and the deep pockets of Netflix has allowed him to extensively use state-of-the-art CGI to make his stars look decades younger in certain scenes.
This pays off by maintaing the integrity and strength of the performances, which include a career best turn by Joe Pesci, and a small role for Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel.
Unusually for Scorsese movies the women exist in the margins, with Anna Paquin acting as a silent witness to events and as a proxy conscience of the audience.
Plus we see Brit actor Stephen Graham alongside Ray Romano in supporting roles, and Jack Huston playing assassinated US politician, Robert F. Kennedy.
Based on the 2004 memoir, ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’, by former investigator Charles Brandt, this is in tone, length and quality a companion piece to and no less of a masterpiece than Sergio Leone’s 1984 mob epic, Once Upon a Time in America, but with greater colour and energy.
That film also starred De Niro in a role in which he needed to be aged, though at a time when he needed traditional techniques to age him upwards.
There are few actor/director partnerships whose careers and reputations have influenced each other to such an extent as De Niro and Scorsese, and if this is to be capstone for their remarkably long-lived professional relationship, then it’s a more than fitting monument to their work.
Three times Oscar-winner editor, Thelma Schoonmaker,has worked with Scorsese for over fifty years and has edited all of his films since 1980’s Raging Bull, and is unequalled in mastery of her craft.
Crucial to holding our attention during the daunting running time she controls the tempo, generates tension and heightens the drama, especially in the key later stretch of this marathon watch.
Another returning collaborator is scriptwriter Steve Zaillian, who earned an Oscar nomination for Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York, and provides plenty of meaty dialogue for the actor’s to chew on, as well as being fluent in the coded criminal language of threats and favours.
Plus there’s’ cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Scorsese’s last two films, the brilliantly unhinged, The Wolf of Wall Street, and the masterful religious period drama, Silence, and here he turns Scorsese’s love of classic cars and clothes into a fetish.
Scorsese has made fewer gangster films than his reputation suggests, and this could easily have been a safe and nostalgic return to his old stomping ground – but he retains a remarkable fire for storytelling and the talent and vision to craft an exemplary piece of work.
Not only does he reference his previous work such as Goodfellas, but also daringly offer a commentary on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
The Irishman confirms the blistering creative hot streak the 76 year old director has been on since finally winning the best director Oscar for 2006’s The Departed.
The big question surrounding not how many Oscar nominations The Irishman will garner, but how many wins.