Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “The Irishman” (2019)

Martin Scorsese’s latest epic spans multiple decades and tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a former meat truck driver who joins the Bufalino crime family, headed up by feared boss Russell (Joe Pesci), as a hitman and then later becomes involved with the dealings of famed union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

A hotly anticipated film if ever there was one, it seems as though we’ve been waiting a lifetime for the popular director’s latest release, the critical reception and word of mouth being incredibly positive and with many singing its praises, heralding this as a masterpiece and one of Scorsese’s finest works. Having now FINALLY seen it, I’d say that I didn’t find the The Irishman to be a masterpiece, nor would I count it as one of Marty’s best films, but nonetheless, it’s an impressive film as it looks gorgeous, it has an engrossing story, the whole cast is strong and the performances from the three principal actors are excellent.

Starting off with the aforementioned performances, Robert De Niro takes a break from the questionable comedy schtick that he’s been known to partake in these days and gives a strong performance that’s something of a return to form for him, playing a part that comes naturally to him; Frank Sheeran is the strong, silent and ruthless killer type, one who knows when to keep his mouth shut, and throughout the film, De Niro radiates toughness, confidence and power and convinces as a determined hitman who has no moral qualms about what he does for a living, although later on in the film, he shows a little despair as he desperately tries to gain his daughter’s attention and begins to reflect on the deeds that he performed as part of the criminal life. Next, Al Pacino, in his first Scorsese film, also demonstrates a return to form as the popular, ice cream guzzling Jimmy Hoffa; early on in the film, he appears as a bit of a livewire as he gives his speeches, connects with people and basically calls everyone a c**ksucker in his trademark “shouty Al” manner but as the film moves on and Hoffa becomes more of a hindrance, the veneer starts to peel and we start to see him as a more flawed and vulnerable character, perhaps sympathising with him a bit more as people conspire to move against him. And completing the trio, Joe Pesci is, for my money, the MVP as mob boss Russell Bufalino; in a different kind of role that we’ve come to expect from him (i.e. an energetic loudmouth), Pesci’s Russell never shouts and hardly ever raises his voice, dealing with business and giving the orders calmly and in a personable manner and he lights up the screen whenever he’s on, playing the cool and collected boss with dignity and perhaps even a certain regality.

The rest of the cast is equally as impressive and in particular, Ray Romano fits in surprisingly well as the shady and smart criminal lawyer Bill Bufalino and Stephen Graham makes the most of his meaty part of Hoffa’s rival Tony Pro, exuding plenty of sleaze, swagger and confidence as the antagonist of the piece. Elsewhere, we have performances from the likes of Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons and Marin Ireland and while they all perform very well, their screen time is relatively limited and they aren’t given enough of a chance to make a big impact. And although Anna Paquin has a controversially small amount of screen time, uttering a total of five words throughout the film’s 3.5 hour runtime, she actually does make an impact as Frank’s older daughter because, when she was younger, the character could always see what her father and his buddies were really like and as the adult version of this character, Paquin demonstrates this character trait by keeping a close eye on proceedings and, through facial expressions alone, tells the audience that she sees right through the BS and knows exactly what’s going on with all the shady dealings.

Although the much talked about runtime is a bit of an issue, the final product not needing to be as long as it was, the story of The Irishman manages to remain engrossing and enlightening throughout and, a far cry from of the more energetic and electric Scorsese features like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, this film is noticeably more patient and mature and takes a little time for character development. It does a good job in educating those who are not in the know about Jimmy Hoffa (I was certainly uninformed on the subject, only knowing that he disappeared – the famous fact that the film cleverly mentions) and though there are a great many names, organisations, dates and historical events thrown around, screenwriter Steven Zaillian never lets events get totally confusing and at the end of the day, though it may not be the most exhilarating or exciting story, it’s a very different type of mobster movie and there’s always something interesting happening on screen, even with the testing runtime. But saying all of that, I do wish that the film had more of that trademark Scorsese “zing” – some more violence, colourful language or a more explosive plot, which would have entertained more and would’ve elevated this film to a higher level. This year, both Scorsese and Tarantino appear to have done the same thing: though they may have made some loud, outrageous features such as Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction in their younger days, they’ve apparently opted for slower and more meditative films for 2019.

The look and feel of the film is also a huge positive and as the film spans several time periods, the production design, costume design and cinematography is very appealing, perhaps moreso than in other Scorsese features, and the film makes use of a great many different locations and in particular, the scenes toward the end of the film that have an Autumnal feel are especially appealing. Also, as is typical for a Scorsese film, the film is loaded with many era-specific tracks, which work very well and they are pleasing to listen to, and Robbie Robertson’s score is also a triumph. And finally, the film makes considerable use of the now commonplace de-aging technology and for the most part, it works as the actors do indeed look much younger and for a lot of the time, it’s so seamlessly done that you barely even notice it, but it isn’t perfect as the occasional shot is a bit dodgy and quite often, Robert De Niro’s eyes appear considerably artificial, reptilian and creepy!

While it’s not one of his best works, Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic has a patient and mature story that manages to remain engrossing and enlightening throughout its mammoth runtime, the production design is exquisite, and the three leading performances are fantastic.

★ ★ ★ ★