'The Irishman'

The Irishman could’ve been a nightmare.

Martin Scorsese has shown no signs of faltering; he’s been both prolific and brilliant throughout the 21st century. But a cast that relies on Robert De Niro and Al Pacino — who’ve been mailing in performances for at least a decade — plus the barely-acted-since-Lethal Weapon 4 Joe Pesci? And an emphasis on the de-aging technology that’s been moderately successful at best in big-budget blockbusters?

There was a lot that could’ve gone wrong. And none of it did. What we get instead is a masterpiece from four people in their 70s, one more gem from these men who all revolutionized cinema in their own ways.

Frank Sheeran (De Niro) is a regular joe and military veteran who gets willingly tangled up with the mob, including local Philly gangster Russell Bufalino (Pesci). He’s quickly tagged as a natural; he does what he’s told and proves endlessly loyal to Bufalino and his associates. But when he also shacks up professionally with famed wild card Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), his allegiances grow more complicated and his choices become much more fatal.

For the first hour, this feels like a fun Scorsese romp. Sort of a “greatest hits” compilation, with some of our greatest actors busting each other’s chops and Marty using onscreen text to note the tragic demises of nearly every real-life person portrayed in the film. Minus a few awkward moments with the surprisingly fine de-aging — including scenes where the 76-year-old De Niro is asked to walk across sharp rocks or beat someone up — it’s tailor-made for mob movie fans who wanted these pros to get back to their roots.

Then, about halfway through, the story begins to reveal itself. It becomes about loss, about the tragedy of being a good soldier, about outlasting your peers and trying to reckon with the choices you made along the way. It’s about finding a place in the world but never taking stock of what’s really important, and how that impacts the people close to you. It’s likely not the last movie Scorsese will ever make, but it does feel like the perfect cap to a remarkable career.

This is the best Robert De Niro has been in years. I want to add “maybe ever” but that feels like recency bias; it can’t touch Raging Bull or Goodfellas, though it comes close. The brilliance of both Scorsese’s direction and Steven Zaillian’s script is that it never pins Sheeran to the center of the screen — or the story. He’s in almost every scene but he’s usually not the person being spoken to, nor is he ever really the focus of this universe. He’s an eternal lackey, someone who’ll always follow orders, even if they mean the death of a friend. And De Niro never wavers in his commitment to that character; he doesn’t show off or stand out. He fits like a glove.

But what Pesci brings to the table goes even beyond De Niro’s performance. His Bufalino is menacing without yelling, charming without cracking jokes, and endlessly fascinating. He’s patient — he sits in a car alone for hours while Sheeran tackles a murderous task. He’s funny with a hint of creepy — he tries to crack wise with Frank’s daughter and instantly accepts his failure when she doesn’t smile back. Pesci’s played so many loud, boorish characters over the years, and it’s a real treat to be reminded of his range. 

As a dedicated Pacino lover, it pains me to admit that he’s the weak link here. There are transcendent moments where he channels Hoffa as the clever, contemplative Al of old, and then there are just as many where he yells and screams and you aren’t sure if he’s acting or if he’s forgotten his lines. It’s a nice complement to the calmness of what De Niro and Pesci bring to the table, but it’s also a reminder that they’re terrific and he’s a high-variance wild card. The real Hoffa seemed larger than life, and Pacino can certainly reach that level, but it never feels like a natural fit. 

Beyond that, the only critique I can offer is how little Scorsese uses the rest of this incredibly deep cast. Despite being the “emotional center” of the movie, Anna Paquin makes a lot of sad faces and barely utters a line of dialogue. Harvey Keitel offers a glorified cameo; Jesse Plemons has nothing to do as Hoffa’s adopted son. The only actor beyond the Big Three to make a dent is Stephen Graham, who’s made a whole career out of being a British guy who can seamlessly play an Italian.

The rest is a work of art. This had all the makings of classic filmmaker excess: a massive budget for a drama, the insistence on using older actors, Netflix allowing Scorsese to release what could’ve been a 209-minute slog. Instead, it’s an unbridled success: one of the best directors of all time getting free rein to make his movie his way. It’ll clean up at the Academy Awards, partly as a nod to Marty, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci being legends but mostly because it’s one of the year’s best.

DramaSteve Cimino