The Irishman

Robert De Niro in 'The Irishman.' (Netflix)
Robert De Niro in 'The Irishman.' (Netflix)

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

In the 1950s, truck driver Frank Sheeran gets involved with Russell Bufalino and his Pennsylvania crime family. As Sheeran climbs the ranks to become a top hit man, he also goes to work for Jimmy Hoffa - a powerful Teamster tied to organised crime.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

With a 94% rating on Metacritic, Martin Scorsese’s latest is about as critically acclaimed as near anything he has ever put out. It is, we’ve been told, proof positive that this near-eighty-year-old filmmaker has lost none of his vitality even as he embraces cutting-edge trends like the liberal use of de-ageing CGI technology and releasing his film almost exclusively to Netflix. From my point of view, though, quite aside for the irony of Scorsese disparaging Marvel films for not being "cinema" while promoting a direct-to-TV movie for anyone not living close to one of the few cinemas that screened the Irishman in select cities in the US and UK, the Irishman just isn’t that great.

Now, I would be the first to admit that the past couple of decades have seen Scorsese release some of his greatest ever work, often pushing himself in directions he hadn’t really explored much in the past, while proving himself, over and over again, to be one of the greatest filmmakers of music documentaries on the planet. It’s also certainly not the case that The Irishman isn’t still a finely put together film by one of the great American directors. He may be nearing eighty, but Martin Scorsese is clearly nowhere near ready for retirement.  

The thing is, though – and I may well be nearly entirely alone in thinking this – The Irishman is far from the best thing he has released over the past twenty years. Frankly, it’s rather near the bottom. It has none of the pulpy fun of Shutter Island, the childlike wonder of Hugo, the zippy stylishness of The Departed or the pure joy and love of his "rockumentary" films about the likes of the Stones, George Harrison and Bob Dylan. It shares a bit with the spiritual existentialism of the underrated Silence but, even then, the earlier film handled that particular topic with far greater intrigue and passion.

A friend of mine described The Irishman as being little more than a retread of Goodfellas and, though he’s not exactly right because it does have a different philosophical point to make and it’s certainly nowhere near as stylish, as vivacious or as much fun as Goodfellas, far too much of The Irishman is just Scorsese once again doing the whole mob-film thing but with vastly diminishing returns. The first two hours (yes, the first two – the whole thing clocks in at a fairly punishing 3.5 hours), in particular, are a real slog to get through as they really feel like nothing more than a collection of tired mob-movie cliches with most of the life sucked out of them.

I am, admittedly, not much of a fan of mob films as it takes a lot to make me care about a bunch of horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people – and by "a lot", I mean nothing less than stone-cold classics like the Godfather and Scorsese’s own Goodfellas – so your mileage may vary if you are a fan of the genre. For me, though, aside for the solid filmmaking and the undoubtedly brilliant acting from some of the greatest (male) actors to ever grace our screens, there is very little to recommend here. It’s extremely slow, tonally muted and really lacking in compelling characters or plot. 

For all that I hate that I am unable to watch the latest Scorsese film in the cinema, one nice thing about having to watch the film on a smallish TV screen, though, is that the de-ageing technology isn’t as bothersome as it might be had I seen it properly projected. Still, there really is no getting past it, though: all the CGI in the world isn’t going to make Joe Pesci or Robert De Niro move like they are in their thirties so, again, it is the earlier sections of the film when they are supposedly at their youngest that the "de-ageing" is at its most distracting.   

The fact that it takes the length of an entire feature film for The Irishman to even begin justifying its existence should be enough to write the whole thing off as an indulgent failure, but the second half of the film really is significantly better. As Al Pacino’s (very Pacino-like) Jimmy Hoffa gets more and more out of control and it becomes increasingly clear that our "hero", Frank Sheeran – the real-life mob enforcer on whose life story the film is based – is going to be torn between his loyalty to his mob family and his friendship with Hoffa, the film finally snaps into focus.

Again, there’s little that’s entirely new here – certainly not the underlying theme of "those who live by the sword, die by the sword" - but De Niro brings so much subtlety and nuance to this simple hitman that it’s hard not to be drawn into the clear conflict that drives him for much of the second half of the film. While Scorsese and screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, do a good job of slowly building the tension around Hoffa’s disappearance, it is De Niro’s performance that really sells what the film is ultimately actually about: the way a life dedicated to "the bad" plays on a person’s soul as they age.

Eschewing big speeches for something much quieter, it is to Scorsese’s great credit that he places almost all of the film’s thematic throughline in the ability of his actor to convey much by doing and saying very little. Fortunately, while Robert De Niro has become a bit inconsistent since last working with Marty, Scorsese has managed to return one of cinema’s greatest actors to the head of the table in what isn’t just his best performance in years but is one of his very best ever. Joe Pesci has rightly been receiving plenty of acclaim for his against-type performance as a quietly commanding mob boss, but this is De Niro’s film through and through.          

Unfortunately, however much De Niro ensures that certain scenes in the film will go down as some of the year’s very best (that confession scene... just, wow...), the movie as a whole is fairly bog-standard Scorsese. Had the film basically just been the second half, there would be much to recommend because even bog-standard Scorsese is better than most easily, but at a minute shy of three-and-a-half hours (and not a speedy three-and-a-half hours, at that) where half of it is pretty pointless, it’s a real endurance test.

Seriously, 94% on Metacritic? What am I missing?