‘The Irishman’ uses a veteran crew at the top of their game

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By Stephen Whitty
Martin Scorsese has gotten the old gang back together. And they’re better, and younger, than ever.

The Irishman — in limited release Nov. 1 before streaming on Netflix Nov. 27 — covers more than half a century of Mafia history. And it brings together a golden cast of stars — Robert De Niro and Al Pacino among them.

But time is crueler than any hitman. How to make Pacino, 79, look middle-aged? Or Robert De Niro, 76, pass for a man in his 30s?

Not easily.

Most of it is done with CGI, and the virtual facelifts occasionally leave some stars, particularly De Niro, looking slightly unreal. It’s one thing for a professional assassin to seem a little dead around the eyes; it’s another for him to seem like a mannequin.

But it’s really only noticeable in a few early scenes. And none of the occasionally dodgy effects detracts from what powers this great film — a veteran crew, at the top of their game, delivering nearly three and a half hours of surprising and sometimes searing drama.

Despite the actors’ ages, this is not just grumpy old gangsters, the Mafia’s greatest hits. Scorsese and his stars bring veteran wisdom to this world, and a sense of regret. If Goodfellas and Casino were about the occasional joys of “the Life” — sharkskin suits and flashy blondes — The Irishman is only about its costs.

How it makes you betray your friends. How it makes you distance yourself from your family. How it leaves you, ultimately, alone.

Of course, De Niro’s Frank Sheeran never had a strong sense of himself. A truck driver happy to do favors for felons, he went from stealing sides of beef to breaking legs to, well, whatever. Kill some guy? Yeah, sure.

Everything was just a job to Frank. Until he lost that job and realized it was all he had.
De Niro’s impassive amorality is chilling, but it’s Pacino who steals the show as Jimmy Hoffa. There have been times, lately, when Pacino’s immense talent seemed close to dissolving into tics — weirdly emphasized words, sudden full-volume shouts.

It works here, though, because that unpredictability is not only the key to Hoffa, but also the man’s undoing. The mob has always been about one thing, the sure thing — this long shot that’s gonna come in, this guy that you know. And once the bosses realized they could no longer control Hoffa, they realized he had to go.

Pacino’s work is the most exciting in the film, skipping from grandfatherly concern to macho bullying. But it only works because the other actors step back into the shadows, giving him the spotlight. Even the long-retired, often explosive Joe Pesci dials it down.

So does Scorsese. Where his roving camera took us inside the Copa in Goodfellas, here it only leads us through an old-age home; where the murders in Casino were orgiastic explosions of revenge, here they’re simply business. And maybe the movie’s point.

It’s never the braying bullies you really have to worry about. It’s always the quiet people who can look you in the eye and lie.

These are men who can order a murder with no more emotion than a shrug of regret. These are men who can put a bullet in the back of a friend’s head, and then calmly wipe the blood from their hands. These are not “goodfellas.” These are killers. And the first thing they always kill is that little, little spark of humanity in themselves.

Stephen’s Grade: A

The Irishman
Rated R
Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
Director: Martin Scorsese

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