Starring Robert De Niro. In English and Italian, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Here’s where Martin Scorsese bids arrivederci to the gangster saga—or at least should do so, since he smacks everything on the table in The Irishman’s mostly taut 210 minutes, and leaves the cannoli.
The film’s likewise a valedictory run for Robert De Niro, returning to his dramatic roots as Frank Sheeran, the last mobster standing—or in this case, sitting in a Catholic retirement home—of the crowd involved in Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance.
The real Sheeran’s confessions have come under renewed scrutiny, since there’s no one around to refute them. But anyway, his Zeliglike presence at so many key moments in U.S. history gives Scorsese a chance to ruminate on mid-century twists that, one could argue, lead directly to the sordid collapse of empire we’re witnessing today.
Courtesy of the new and not-quite-perfected de-aging technique (probably the only aspect here to benefit from the film’s small screen home on Netflix), we first see Frank as a youngish family type who happens upon a meat-trucking scam around the time he meets made man Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), whose connections, and many cousins, keep moving this Irish odd-man-out up through the Italianate ranks.
Relying on the elegant camera moves of Mexico’s Rodrigo Prieto, the lovingly crafted film allows De Niro to run a greatest-hits reel of his mob characters, with hints of Raging Bull, minus the pathology. His Frank is ambitious, sure, but that’s mainly to provide for his first family, later traded in for another. Neither introspection nor cruelty are involved when he’s tasked with bumping off small fry or, further on, the bigger fish in this polluted sea.
The largest bass on the hook here is, of course, Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamster boss once as powerful as the Kennedys, and now almost forgotten, as Steve Zaillian’s smart script keeps reminding us. He’s played by Al Pacino, (relatively) blimped-out, buzz-cut, and blustering his way through a performance of such towering megalomania that it’s hard not to relate it to certain over-powered blowhards today who can’t tell when they’re sealing their own fates.
If Pacino’s Hoffa is the wild card—tragicomic relief, if you will—Pesci, playing against type, is the calming factor, while De Niro’s good soldier remains a twitchy enigma. Among many players who graduated from Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, Stephen Graham has the best bits as Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a mobbed-up Teamster who truly drives Hoffa nuts.
It’s testimony to the veteran director’s cachet that he’s able to get people like Harvey Keitel and Bobby Cannavale to play mere walk-on parts, and to have Anna Paquin in the thankless role of daughter Peggy Sheeran—the only female character of real note, reduced to nearly silent disapproval of Frank’s violent ways. The Irishman itself notes the high price of the masculine isolation imposed by this fading way of life, eulogized in its last 20 minutes.
But what of the taint still coursing through the nation’s veins?