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Movie Review: 'The Irishman' Is An Epic With The Feel Of History

Nov 1, 2019
Originally published on November 1, 2019 7:03 pm
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Martin Scorsese's new movie "The Irishman" reunites him for the first time in decades with Robert De Niro, his star from "Taxi Driver," "Mean Streets" and "Goodfellas." Al Pacino and Joe Pesci co-star in "The Irishman," and critic Bob Mondello says they and their director have made an epic that has the feel of history.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The opening shot is a callback to that gorgeous, unbroken tracking shot Martin Scorsese used to introduce "Goodfellas," where the camera followed that film's gangland narrator at the peak of his career - from his car, through a crowded kitchen and into a bustling nightclub. This time, the camera isn't following "The Irishman's" gangland narrator.

It's looking for him - you might say from the other end of his career, travelling down nursing home corridors until it finds him sitting in a wheelchair, face lined, hair white - Robert De Niro as hitman Frank Sheeran, looking back on a career that started decades earlier when he worked for mob boss Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci. Frank remembers the night Bufalino introduced him to a big shot who would change his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRISHMAN")

JOE PESCI: (As Russell Bufalino) Listen. I got that kid I was talking to you about here. I'm going to put him on the phone, let you talk to him, OK?

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Frank Sheeran) Hello?

MONDELLO: Actors De Niro and Pesci are both in their 70s, but they've been digitally de-aged for these flashbacks to roughly their 40s, a trick that is visually disconcerting at first. Their eyes look right - skin? Not entirely, but you get used to it. Also appearing younger than his mid-70s is the guy on the phone, played by Al Pacino.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRISHMAN")

AL PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) How are you, Frank? This is Jimmy Hoffa.

DE NIRO: (As Frank Sheeran) Yeah. Yeah. Glad to meet you.

PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) Well, glad to meet you, too, even if it's over the phone. I heard you paint houses.

MONDELLO: Painting houses is code. They're talking about blood spattered on walls because by the early 1960s, Frank, who was real - this story is based on a chronicle of his life - was deep in the embrace of the Bufalino family. You wanted somebody whacked? Frank was your guy.

And this being a Scorsese flick, there are a lot of whackings - ones that are in pursuit of mob justice, of political justice with regard to the Kennedy family, and also in pursuit of union justice, which can be just as rough as the other kinds when the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa are involved. Assassinations and assassination attempts are this film's stock in trade, with larger-than-life Hoffa surviving one...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRISHMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Get that gun out of his hands.

MONDELLO: ...Then grandstanding for the press.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRISHMAN")

PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) You always charge a guy with a gun - with a knife, you run away. So you charge with a gun - with a knife, you run.

MONDELLO: For the first two of the film's luxuriously rich 3 1/2 hours, "The Irishman" offers the sort of raucous, splattery mob movie spectacle that Scorsese's so often trafficked in, sometimes presented with resonance and majesty, sometimes with inventive little quirks - minor characters with colorful names, for instance, introduced with a freeze frame that notes when they will ultimately die and how. The screenplay is quirky too when, say, a minor mobster disrespects Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRISHMAN")

PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) I never waited for anyone who was late more than 10 minutes in my life.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'd say 15, 15's right.

PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) No, 10.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ten's not enough. You have to take traffic into account.

PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) That's what I'm doing. I'm taking traffic into account. That's why it's 10.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: I still say 15.

PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) No, 10.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) How about 12 1/2 minutes?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) There we go, 12 1/2.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Right in the middle. Beautiful. Beautiful.

PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) Yeah. More than 10 is saying something. You saying something to me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I'm here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) It says what it says.

MONDELLO: Steve Zaillian's screenplay says what it says - precisely and with eloquence, especially as Scorsese nudges the actors in sadder directions and the story gets more invested in loss. For while "The Irishman" is like many mob movies about violence and betrayal, it's a work of a filmmaker who has earned the right to sum up this genre. So it's also about regrets, remorse, reckonings and elegy.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.