The Irishman (2019)


Shortly before the release of The Irishman director Martin Scorsese made headlines with his comments showing disdain for the current state of cinema, largely aimed at Marvel and DC films.  While all of his points were valid (and many have been voiced by myself and others), the way it came across was as a rant from an angry old man.  It was one of the biggest "Okay, Boomer" moments of 2019.

I think the reason some directors suddenly got their hackles up is, despite Grandpa Simpson way his concerns were presented, they contain more than an element of truth.  Movies, from the start, have always been a way to make money.  However, as with any visual medium, there are those who can do it better than others and turn out works of art that, coincidentally, end up making the investors happy as well.  Martin Scorsese has been one of those directors, and his influence on just about any director from the early 1970s forward is unquestionable.  Even if there is not necessarily an imitation of style, the drive to make independent films and push them into the mainstream is still there.

Not only is it still there, but the drive to take mainstream films back to what Scorsese was doing nearly 50 years ago is there as well.  The Joker, one of the biggest films of 2019, ironically abandoned the cookie-cutter mishmash that are most DC films to make a loving homage not only to Batman's most memorable villain, but also to the filmmaking of a bygone era.  If anything, The Joker proves Scorsese right in the fact that old school artistic cinema and mainstream films can succeed without being special effects spectacles.

But, of course, the universe loves irony.  While some current directors are finding inspiration from the past, The Irishman benefits heavily from the computer effects that are prevalent in the movies that Scorsese was railing against.  It is also important to note that he is pushing a three-and-a-half hour film about a man that may, or may not have, killed Jimmy Hoffa.  For most people under the age of 50 it is a difficult sell, because one has to know both who Hoffa was as well as suspend belief in some parts, as the real Frank Sheeran may have made himself out to be much more important than he actually was.

We begin with Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in a rest home, relaying portions of his life.  After returning from World War II he began working as a truck driver, but soon figures out he can make a little extra by selling the meat he is hauling to various places on the way.  It eventually lands him in hot water, but he is able to wiggle out of it due to union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who happens to be connected with the crime family of the same name.  Sheeran soon becomes friends with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a trusted enforcer for both Russell and his higher-up, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). 

Through the connections with the Bufalino family Sheeran eventually given the job of protecting Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and eventually becomes friends with the labor boss and president of a local union himself.  Problem is Hoffa is never willing to step in line for anyone, not even the mob bosses that virtually control his union and, after a stint in prison, becomes more of a liability, eventually leading Sheeran to have to make some hard choices.

The way The Irishman plays out is similar in many ways to Goodfellas and Casino, with a large amount of characters to keep track of and a story spanning multiple decades.  Much as been made about its long running time, but there is not really anything I would say could be left out.  Scorsese's films rarely have any fat left on them after he gets down to the version he wants to release.  It is a good fit for Netflix, however, since although we are once again experiencing a growth in the length of films, directors and studios are still stubbornly refusing to reinstate intermissions. 

All the usual Scorsese trademarks are there, from the actors he typically likes to use (although this is the first time he has had Al Pacino in one of his films) to the music and the use of titles to introduce different characters - although, this time, it is give some information on who died and how.  He once again does not make the Italian-American underworld look glamorous.  They may all have fancy cars and respect within their ranks, but there are no mansions or other signs of luxury.  Even Sheeran's fancy gold watch is a reward from the Teamsters for his time as a union boss.  His big reward in the end, like most of Scorsese's gangsters (especially those who were real people) is spending a good portion of his golden years in prison while his friends die and his family abandons him.

That said, although De Niro is only part Irish, it is a role that he is fit for.  It is nice that he gets a chance to play this type of character again, as the once great actor has been barely coasting by over the years, doing largely unfunny comedies to collect a paycheck.  It is nice to see some fire in him after all this time.  Al Pacino is great as Hoffa, and thankfully reigns in some of his usual habits of shouting dialogue at top volume.  Still, Hoffa was a larger than life personality, and Pacino is one of the few actors that can bring that fiery spirit forward.  It was also nice to see Joe Pesci again after all these years, even though my first reaction, when seeing him in scenes without the computer aging effects, was how old the man actually is these days.  He plays Russell in a calm, understated and authoritative way, much different than the wild, out-of-control characters he is famous for.

Speaking of the aging technology, it has become much better.  I still have a problem with bringing dead actors back to life using similar effects, but this is one of the times when the computer effects seem to outdo the usual makeup and prosthetics.  Often when they age actors it is painfully obvious, and in the past many times the attempt to use computer graphics to do the same has resulted in either an unearthly glow or just dove head first into the uncanny valley.   It is not perfect, and occasionally shows through (a few times the heads appear too big for the bodies, creating a bit of a Jib-Jab effect), and that can be more than a little distracting.  Strange thing is that we are actually getting to the point where it is largely not noticeable.  It also prompted the leads to have to use their physical acting chops to make their movements appear more like their younger selves as well.

If there is any major flaw in The Irishman, however, it is that Martin Scorsese is once again back in his safe space.  Unlike challenging (and less lucrative) movies like The Last Temptation of Christ or his most recent movie before this one, The Silence, this is Scorsese slipping back into a style of directing that he could probably do in his sleep.  I'm glad that he did not just decide to phone this in, as there are enough differences to make The Irishman unique, and it is nice to see at least one more movie in this style before Scorsese follows his other muses or, at some point, decides to hang it up.  Make fun of his ranting all you like, but The Irishman is there to make it clear he can still back up what he is saying after all this time.

The Irishman (2019)
Time: 209 minutes
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino
Director: Martin Scorsese

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