Martin Scorsese’s latest film “The Irishman”, which was released in South Korea a few days ago and will be available on Netflix on next Wednesday, is a dry, long elegy to a cold, mean, and violent criminal world in the past. Although it certainly requires some patience considering its long running time (209 minutes), the movie firmly gripped my attention just like many of Scorsese’s notable works when I watched it along with a friend of mine yesterday, and I appreciated its many strong aspects although it did not excite or intrigue me as much as “Goodfellas” (1990) or his several works during recent years.
In the opening scene, which is accompanied with “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins being played on the soundtrack, we are introduced to a very old dude named Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro who looks a bit more aged and frail than usual at this point. Many years ago, Sheeran did numerous dirty jobs for some powerful figures in the underworld of Philadelphia while officially working as a high-ranking official of the Teamsters’ Union, and his sprawling recount on the past in front of the camera sets the main frame for what is going to be told and shown for us during next 3 hours.
The movie subsequently moves back to the early 1950s, when Sheeran, who is still played De Niro in a much younger appearance thanks to a nearly flawless digital de-aging process on his face and body, worked as a mere truck driver but then came to enter the world of crime as getting himself associated with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, who is de-aged a bit but looks older than De Niro in the film). At first, Sheeran simply does some small favors for Bufalino, but then he gradually becomes one of Bufalino’s close associates, and Bufalino is willing to protect and benefit Sheeran in more than one way. When Sheeran inadvertently gets himself into a tricky circumstance at one point, Bufalino fortunately steps in the situation for him in the last minute, and Sheeran accordingly becomes more loyal and dedicated to Bufalino than before.
Around the 1960s, Sheeran is introduced to James Riddle “Jimmy” Hoffa (Al Pacino, whose appearance is also considerably de-aged here in this film), the president of the Teamsters’ Union who was also one of the most famous and powerful figures in US at that time. With Hoffa and Buffalino on his back, everything goes pretty well for Sheeran’s life, and he is always ready to do whatever is ordered by Buffalino or Hoffa, who soon becomes a close friend of Sheeran and his dear family just like Buffalino.
Of course, their good time does not last that long. Hoffa subsequently becomes the main target of a big federal government investigation, and his trouble continues even after he is consequently sent to prison due to his clash with several other big figures in the Teamsters’ Union, who are also associated with Bufalino and his criminal associates in one way or another. In the end, it becomes quite clear to Bufalino as well as Sheeran that something must be done as soon as possible, and we already know what will inevitably happen because, well, the movie announced it to us right from when Hoffa entered the picture early in the story.
While I have no idea on how much of the screenplay by Steven Zaillian, which is based on Charles Brandt’s questionable nonfiction book “I Heart You Paint Houses”, is fictional, the movie steadily engaged nonetheless with mood and details to be appreciated, and it is compelling to watch how it gradually reveals its big criminal picture as smoothly moving from one expected narrative moment to another. Because everything in the story is presented with dry detachment, we come to observe Sheeran and many other characters in the film from the distance without much care, but Scorsese and his technical crew members including editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto effortlessly establish enough atmosphere and narrative momentum for us, and we are seldom bored during a number of key moments in the film including the one where Hoffa’s fate is irreversibly sealed via the wordless interactions among Sheeran and a few other characters around him. In addition, the movie shows a sense of dark humor from time to time, and you will be particularly amused by its frequent emphasis on when and how many of numerous supporting characters in the film will eventually die, which becomes a sort of morbid running gag while also resonating with the main themes of the story.
The movie drew lots of attention for gathering its three big main performers together, and they respectively show that they still can be at the top of their game as before. While De Niro diligently holds the center with what will be regarded as his best performance during last two decades, Al Pacino, who previously appeared along with De Niro in “Heat” (1995) and “Righteous Kill” (2008), deftly handles his showier role with gusto and nuances, and Joe Pesci, who has been in semi-retirement during last two decades, surprises us with his understated but rich performance, which certainly makes a big contrast with his volatile Oscar-winning supporting turn in “Goodfellas”.
In case of many other notable performers in the film, they simply fill their respective spots as much as demanded. While Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, and Harvey Keitel (remember when he appeared in Scorsese’s three great films “Mean Streets” (1973), “Taxi Driver” (1976), and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)?) are dependable as bringing some life and personality to their supporting characters, Ray Romano is quite convincing in his more serious acting, and I also enjoyed the brief appearances of several other recognizable performers including Jack Huston, Jesse Plemons, Steven Van Zandt, Jim Norton, Domenick Lombardozzi, and Anna Paquin, who functions as a silent but substantial female perspective at the fringe of the story.
On the whole, “The Irishman” achieves as much as expected from its ambitious attempt, and Scorsese demonstrates here that he is still one of the best filmmakers working in our time, but it somehow feels less special to me compared to his recent works such as “Hugo” (2011), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), and “Silence” (2016). I am not so sure about its greatness even at this point, but I still respect how Scorsese and his crew and cast members reach for greatness, and I am glad that I watched it on a big screen.