Martin Scorsese’s latest film is nothing short of epic. With a nearly three and half hour run time, a 159 million dollar budget, and a cast that includes Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci to name a few, The Irishman is not built on half measures.
The Irishman tells the story of the real Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), World War II veteran turned truck driver who begins stealing his company’s steaks to sell to the Bufalino crime family. Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) immediately takes a shine to him, and Frank soon becomes one of the family’s most trusted hitmen. Russell introduces him to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), head of the Teamster’s union, who needs his help to combat the growing pressure from rivals within the union, as well as from the federal government. The two become close, but after Hoffa is sent to prison for fraud and loses his grip on the union, his actions become more and more problematic for the mafiosos, forcing Frank to choose sides.
The saga spans three decades, a fact that caused numerous problems in development. Scorsese opted for new anti-aging technology instead of having younger actors step in for the early years. This choice proved costly, however, inflating the budget and leading all major studios to turn it down. That is, until Netflix stepped in, giving him free rein.
Hot on the heels of Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Roma, The Irishman shows how quickly Netflix is becoming a serious player in the world of cinematic production.
Although the technology isn’t perfect and it is initially odd to see De Niro slightly pixelated, the shock doesn’t last. If anything, the de-aging gives us more time to watch these actors at work.
And they don’t disappoint. De Niro is perfect as the reserved, emotionally stunted Frank, who never gives much away. Pesci, who came out of retirement for the film, is riveting as Russell, whose demure, calculating demeanour makes a change from the brash violence of the characters we’re used to seeing him play.
But Pacino steals the show. He shines as Hoffa, endowing him with all the charisma and hubris of a Shakespearean king. He manages to find the balance between fiery and soft, unpredictable and trustworthy. He does this so masterfully, in fact, that the audience actually finds themselves feeling sorry for the man with ties to the mob.
Yes, it’s a Scorsese mob film, but this is new territory. The world of the gangster is unravelled; the glitz and glamour are stripped away and we see the ugly consequences of a life of crime. Gangsters grow old and lonely, with nothing to show for their choices. The last 30 minutes creep up on you and stay with you.
There is a sense of weight in the last moments. The main cast and Scorsese are all in their seventies, and it’s very likely we’ll never see a film like this again. As the old Frank is forced to look at his own mortality, the audience is forced to say goodbye to this kind of filmmaking.