“The Irishman” spends a good 20 minutes making you pine for better gangster movies from living legend Martin Scorsese.
Been there, whacked that.
Where’s the black humor of “Goodfellas?” The Machiavellian tactics of “Casino?” And why does a de-aged Robert De Niro bring the clunky CGI fest “The Polar Express” to mind?
Still, the Oscar winner poured his talents, aided by a sublime cast, into the story of a “house painter” for a reason. Slowly, it becomes all too clear why.
“The Irishman” looks at the underbelly of 20th century America and finds corruption in its DNA. The whackings. The stiff-arming. The public all too eager to embrace figures who don’t have their best interests at heart.
This isn’t a lecture or an anti-American screed. “The Irishman” delivers an epic-length tale of gangsters lurking in plain sight, a tale worthy of Scorsese’s legacy.
It still leaves audiences a mite chilly.
Frank Sheeran (De Niro) rose up the gangster ranks the old fashioned way. He did what he was told, never asked questions and compartmentalized his morality to get the job done.
All that endeared him to Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a soft-spoken mobster whose control is never in doubt. We’ve seen Pesci rage across the screen. Here, he’s dialed down but always in charge. He never gets his hands dirty, either.
That’s for men like Frank.
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Their bond grows over time, despite a serious misstep that could have halted Frank’s rise … permanently. Their circles eventually cross that of Labor kingpin Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), a force of nature with two undeniable traits.
He never lets anyone control his life, and he can’t accept tardiness in any way, shape or form.
The latter is played for tight-lipped laughter. The former? It could be his undoing.
It’s impossible to engage “The Irishman” without debating its gargantuan running time — three and a half hours. It’s one thing to be patient while S. Craig Zahler luxuriates in dialogue and tension. What we’re asked to give Scorsese is something more, and it’s tough to argue against a few nips and necessary tucks.
Yes, there will be blood, and violence, and sudden gunfire that leaves you gasping. Scorsese can still surprise us, and his story is light and electric. The Frank/Hoffa bond offers a prime example. Each man is fully aware of the others’ flaws and obligations.
This isn’t an exact history, of course. The Hoffa chronology alone suggests sizable creative license. Still, watching these deeply flawed souls dart in and out of our recognizable past delivers a primer on our baser instincts.
Can we talk about the digital de-aging now? It’s mostly seamless, although the flaws can be as obvious as the bolts on Frankenstein’s Monster.
An early sequence makes De Niro look like an outtake from a first-generation CGI affair. Either the digital makeup improves from there, or we slowly adjust our expectations.
It’s another part of the modern director’s tool kit, for better and worse. You can’t de-age the slump of an older man’s shoulders, for example, something visible throughout the film.
“The Irishman’s” dialogue flows from essential to superfluous, with micro humor to make the grotesque sequences more palatable. Ultimately, it’s Frank’s story, a man who punched the clock, even during a critical war time flashback, without giving the results a second thought.
That theme permeates the final, stunning act.
Clint Eastwood bid adieu to westerns with “Unforgiven,” a movie deconstructing what violence does to the soul. “The Irishman” performs a parallel task. What if one’s soul is impervious to guilt, to remorse, to the pain caused to so many?
It’s why you’ll exit “The Irishman” eager to chase away the chill.
Some solid actors are used so sparingly you wonder if the tale was even longer than 209 minutes before editing. Both Jesse Plemons and Anna Paquin decorate the screen while getting precious little to do. Paquin barely speaks. Bobby Cannavale gets slightly more attention, but comic turned actor Sebastian Maniscalco is similarly wasted.
It’s not hard to imagine audiences digesting “The Irishman” like any other Netflix series, taking time to absorb its complex storytelling.
It’s cinema, all right, For future audiences, it might be a binge-worthy affair without a single sour episode.
HiT or Miss: “The Irishman” starts slowly and could use a nip and tuck. It’s still a masterful showcase for both director Martin Scorsese and a trio of our greatest living actors.