Netflix review: Scorsese rounds up the usual suspects for topnotch 'The Irishman'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Dec 03 2019 04:05 PM

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) has conflicting loyalties in 'The Irishman.' Handout

Martin Scorsese's latest film epic, "The Irishman," is based on the 2004 book "I Heard You Paint Houses" by lawyer Charles Brandt, written based on his interviews of the titular Irishman himself, Frank Sheeran. "Painting houses" was a Mafia euphemism for murdering people, with "paint" referring to the blood that gets splattered on the walls or floor when someone got shot. 

Frank Sheeran started off as a driver of meat products which included deliveries to members of the Italian mob in Philadelphia. From there, he was introduced to Northern Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Buffalino, who used Sheeran for more hardcore jobs, like assassinations. Later, Sheeran was also introduced to James Hoffa, leader of the Teamsters, the most influential labor union of his day. When caught within an internal conflict between these two powerful men, Sheeran's loyalty was put to the ultimate test.

This film was yet another cinematic work about American gangsters by Martin Scorsese, a director who will always be remembered for similarly themed films like "Mean Streets" (1973), "Casino" (1995) and of course, his masterpiece "Goodfellas" (1990). Robert de Niro was Scorsese's star in all these famous films, and this acclaimed actor of Irish-Italian descent takes center stage again in "The Irishman." This massive project reunites de Niro with Joe Pesci and Al Pacino -- a dream triumvirate of actors for the ideal gangster film.

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While Robert de Niro played the central character Frank Sheeran, he was playing a man who was working merely under orders of the powers that be. By playing mainly a subservient character, De Niro himself was frequently overshadowed by Pesci and Pacino who were playing the more interesting, larger-than-life characters, Russ Buffalino and Jimmy Hoffa. De Niro's best scenes here were in that tension-filled sequence of Russ and Frank driving to the airport so Frank can take a private jet to Detroit to meet Jimmy. Those mostly wordless scenes were suffused with such nail-biting suspense, it can get unbearable.

I heard Joe Pesci had to be coaxed out of retirement to accept this role as Russ. He was one of the busiest character actors of the 1990s, but had been inactive since the turn of the new century. He looked very different now from how I remember him in his most popular role as the bumbling crook Harry in "Home Alone" (1990) or his Oscar-winning role as the volatile Tommy in "GoodFellas." However, Pesci's power as an actor never diminished. Even in the quiet moments, his Russ emanated authority and absolute control. 

Al Pacino had the showiest role of the three as Jimmy Hoffa, the only historical personality whose name I recognized. Yes, like the film mentioned, I only remember the name of Hoffa as a union leader who disappeared without a trace, and nothing more, so it was informative to learn more about him here. Pacino played him loud, intimidating and flamboyant, a stickler for rules and unafraid to speak his mind to anyone. Whenever he was onscreen, Pacino drew all the attention to him because of the sheer charisma of his character. 

Scorsese's collaborators on this film were all topnotch. The script was written by Steve Zaillian, noted for his Oscar-winning screenplay of "Schindler's List" and another Scorsese epic "Gangs of New York." The film editing was by Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's editor for all his films since "Raging Bull" (winning an Oscar with that, "The Aviator" and "The Departed"). The cinematography was by Rodrigo Prieto, known for his work on "Brokeback Mountain," "Babel," and Scorsese's own "Silence." The musical score was by Robbie Robertson, who was Scorsese's music producer in most of his films since "Raging Bull."

This Martin Scorsese opus may be lengthy at 209 minutes but it was always engrossing and engaging, not boring at all. While watching it whole in one sitting is the best way to appreciate it, watching this on Netflix may prove difficult to do in one sitting with all the distractions at home. However, the episodic treatment of Sheeran's life events made it alright for me to watch it with a few reasonable breaks, and still not lose the compelling power of Scorsese's storytelling. His major casting coup of getting De Niro, Pesci and Pacino to act together in one big movie was worth every dollar and every minute. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."