It takes less than five minutes to establish “The Irishman” in Martin Scorsese’s unmistakable voice. The camera glides into the retirement home where wistful former Philadelphia hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) begins a sprawling recollection of his glory days as right-hand man to Sicilian mafioso Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and corrupt union overlord Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). With Sheeran’s voiceover as a guide, the movie flashes back to an innocuous road trip with Sheeran in the driver’s seat and Bufalino bickering with his wife about smoking in the car. The mood is at once taut and funny, the essence of Scorsese’s ability to humanize the mob as prickly macho men just a few notes shy of lovable. In that fundamental disconnect — between endearing people and the psychotic world they represent — the movie presents a fascinating onramp to America’s obsession with organized crime.
Forget that it’s a touch too long and the much-ballyhooed de-aging technology doesn’t always cast a perfect spell; the movie zips along at such a satisfying clip that its flaws rarely amount to more than mild speed bumps along the way.
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There have been flashes of the “Goodfellas” blend in the last three decades, with the pitch-black comedy of hapless anti-heroes driving “Casino,” The Departed,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” not to mention lesser entries like “Gangs of New York,” and almost all of them derive their authenticity from a historical foundation. However, “The Irishman” features an ideal match of filmmaker and source material: Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian have crafted a faithful adaptation Sheeran’s 2004 quasi-memoir “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa,” which takes him at his dubious word, and it provides a definitive template for Scorsese’s best kind of character study. Sheeran talks like he was born into the “Goodfellas” expanded universe.
The book, written by former attorney Charles Brandt, was crafted as first-person deathbed confession. As such, it unfolds largely in the first person, with Sheeran recalling his rise from running meat-truck scams in Philly to high-profile contract killer, and he takes credit for more than one infamous hit. Sheeran positions himself on the sidelines — and sometimes at the center — of the biggest mob power players in the country during the height of its influence, as International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Hoffa engaged in a decade-spanning struggle for dominance while Attorney General Bobby Kennedy chased him at every turn. Hoffa famously vanished in 1975 and was declared dead in absentia seven years later; Sheeran’s confession that he killed his longtime pal doesn’t totally pass muster, but fretting over the details misses the appeal of this alleged fabrication.
In fact, many of Sheeran’s revelations have been questioned and even debunked entirely. In the context of “The Irishman,” he may as well be the Forrest Gump of felons, encapsulating his era and the brutish masculine personalities that defined it. Sheeran’s claims range from a central role in the Bay of Pigs invasion to pulling the trigger on Hoffa himself, but none of that has to check out for “The Irishman” to take cues from his narrative and make it click.
Sheeran’s story has been reenacted within a daunting timeline that doesn’t exactly demand the three hours and 29 minutes it takes up, but “The Irishman” makes the bulk of them count. Yes, the ambitious, headline-grabbing decision to use costly CGI to make De Niro and others look like their younger selves is initially off-putting: When Sheeran remembers his first encounter with Bufalino in the early ’60s, when the unassuming mafioso helped the younger WWII veteran fix his engine at a filling station, De Niro’s wrinkle-free cheeks practically look like software code incarnate, and the character’s large frame bears little resemblance to De Niro’s appearances in work from the actual period. But as the movie careens through the years with subtle updates to Sheeran’s look, the effect becomes more feature than bug — a signifier of an entire movie taking place within one man’s iffy recollections.
Other key figures undergo jarring transformations: As the affable Bufalino, Pesci shrivels into a wizened flesh pile by the closing act, but it’s a reasonable transition for the aging crime boss and he certainly looks the part. But Pacino is the greatest beneficiary of his approach: At first glance, he’s only subtracted a handful of decades to look like a pretty believable guy in his fifties, and only has to age another decade before he meets his eventual fate.
“The Irishman” takes its time explaining the way Hoffa had any reason to notice Sheeran in the first place. The movie begins with absorbing account of his relationship to Bufalino, as he gradually comes to understand the mafia ecosystem and funnels his wartime skills to new use on the streets. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker work their usual montage magic, threading together jazzy breakdowns of Sheeran’s hit-man routine with expert comic timing. (As Sheeran drops one gun after another into the same canal, he suggests the ensuing pileup “could arm a small country.”)
Still, when Hoffa shows up around the 45-minute mark, he instantly takes charge. (Sheeran, ever the military man, compares his new boss to General Patton.) Pacino’s over-the-top presence borders on parody, but at the same time, feels attuned to the larger-than-life shadow that Hoffa cast in his prime. At his best, the Teamster folk hero embodies the fury of his moment: He throws monstrous tantrums over tardiness and rages to his minions about Bobby (or “Booby”) Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa” squad, dotes over his docile adopted son Chucky (Jesse Plemons, of course), and makes aggressive attempts to keep Sheeran by his side. Sheeran and Hoffa’s hilarious odd-couple dynamic reaches a fever pitch when Hoffa loses it on a roomful of “dumb motherfuckers,” inadvertently hurting Sheeran’s feelings until he offers a frantic mea culpa to win him back.
For a while, at least. Like the book, “The Irishman” chronicles the way Sheeran’s divided allegiances to Hoffa and Bufalino forces the henchman to a tough choice once Hoffa alienates his mob peers with a late-career attempt to retake the union. In the meantime, Sheeran undergoes a credible transition into a confident power broker himself, with guidance from savvy union lawyer Bill Bufalino (a slippery Ray Romano), who guides him through various courtroom snafus. All along, Sheeran never strays from reminders of his main gig, including one fast-paced recollection of his hit on “Crazy Joe” Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalo) in a famously bloody murder at Umerto’s Clam House in Little Italy. Those details remain suspect, but not in the confines of the movie, where Sheeran’s eventual assignment to take out Hoffa arrives as a natural result of the jobs leading up to it.
This much is true: Hoffa did time for jury tampering, got out of jail a few years later, and exacerbated tension with the mob when he attempted to reclaim his union presidency. Few dispute that this precipitated his downfall, and Scorsese follows Hoffa’s declining popularity as a slo-mo tragedy undercut by humorous asides. Sheeran’s own regrets over the Hoffa situation are established by their buddy dynamic early on, which includes more than one scene of these two iconic actors talking strategy after hours in their pajamas (believe it or not, they’re actually kind of charming).
But Hoffa’s constant need to dominate every conversation almost always steals the show. One simmering argument with rival Teamsters leader Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham) is practically a standalone short film defined by passive-aggressive ribbing that culminates in a clumsy brawl that plays like a close cousin of Pesci’s iconic “like a clown” speech in “Goodfellas.”
Zaillian hasn’t delivered a script this polished since “Moneyball,” and “The Irishman” is loaded with amusing quips and snazzy timing, from a gag about “the Italian Mayflower” to the discussion of two ill-fated criminals both named Whispers that devolves into an unexpected “Who’s on first?” routine. Some of the squabbling sticks around too long, but there’s too much appeal to watching these actors own their archetypes for the scenery-chewing moments to drag.
It’s all a grand setup, anyway, as “The Irishman” dovetails into a very different movie for its final gripping hour. That’s when the circumstances around Hoffa’s disappearance come together in a disquieting buildup worthy of Robert Bresson — the slow trickle of audiovisual details, from closeups of handguns to rumbling car engines, contribute to the encroaching dread. Scorsese lingers a bit much on the fallout, but the melancholic, soulful coda allows De Niro to drop the de-aging facade and deliver a masterclass on the loneliness of old age. As the character grows estranged from his grown daughter (Anna Paquin, who says little but explains much with her eyes) and shrinks into a nursing home, Sheeran’s entire journey becomes a dark joke: He’s spent the whole movie explaining how he became a legend in his own mind, and eventually, he’s trapped by it.
By contrast, “The Irishman” is alive with Scorsese’s trademark style. His third outing with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is their showiest collaboration. One delightful tracking shot captures a barbershop hit that begins at the center of the crime and ends up resting on a bouquet of flowers; elsewhere, the camera swoops through court proceedings and ballroom dances, carried along by jazzy music cues that range from Bill Doggett to Fats Domino. Schoonmaker’s hand is more deeply felt here than it has been in Scorsese’s work for some time: His longest narrative feature has an elegance that suggests every intention of keeping the sprawling tower of events from toppling over.
Scorsese does get away with some bold devices, none more notable than a running bit where onscreen text documents the morbid fates of various supporting characters. The device is mostly comedic, driving home the way the death toll stems from a testosterone-fueled power struggle of white men in suits. The movie lacks a strong female voice — Sheeran’s own two wives barely exist in the story — but such limitations speak to Sheeran’s character flaws more than those of “The Irishman.”
De Niro’s always at his best in the context of a Scorsese-mandated tough-guy routine, and Frank Sheeran gives the actor his most satisfying lead role in years. Sheeran appears in virtually every scene, and the story belongs to his colorful worldview the entire time. He may be an aging man telling tall tales, but that puts him in the same category as the one behind the camera. Sheeran, however, lost touch with his world long before he left it. With “The Irishman,” Scorsese proves he’s more alive than ever.
“The Irishman” premiered at the 2019 New York Film Festival. Netflix releases it in U.S. theaters on November 1 and on the platform November 27.