Despite the grueling 3 1/2-hour runtime, “The Irishman” is a magnetic mob epic from Martin Scorsese, the undisputed don of gangster cinema.
Adapted from the nonfiction book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defense attorney Charles Brandt, it chronicles the criminal career of mob hitman and bodyguard Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran who is working as a delivery truck driver when he is rightly accused of stealing.
Impressed by Frank’s cagey testimony and refusal to name his co-conspirators, his attorney, Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), gets him acquitted and introduces him to his cunning cousin, Russell (Joe Pesci), the head of the Italian-American crime family that runs Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.
Frank develops a close friendship with Russell and rises through the ranks of the crime syndicate by ruthlessly carrying out hits, and Russell eventually introduces him to charismatic Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the powerful head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Sheeran becomes Hoffa’s bodyguard and close friend, with even Frank’s stoic daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child, Anna Paquin as an adult), who loathes her father’s mob business, charmed by the union leader.
But a series of shifting circumstances – President Kennedy’s election and assassination, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s (Jack Huston) “Get Hoffa” squad, Hoffa’s prison sentence for jury tampering and his rivalry with fellow Teamster leader Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) – puts Hoffa and the crime family at odds, with Frank’s loyalties squarely in the middle of the conflict.
Even by their superlative standards, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci – the latter came out of retirement at Scorsese’s behest, give stellar performances, and Industrial Light & Magic’s de-aging effects show just how far that cinematic technology has come in a short time.
Although exciting, sweeping and action-packed, Scorsese’s gangster films have always shown the toll taken by a life of organized crime, and “The Irishman” goes a step further, inserting into the narrative text descriptions of some mobsters’ violent, untimely deaths. His cautionary tale even more ruthlessly chronicles the fate of other Mafia members: fading into old age in prison or in a nursing home alone with nothing but old memories and regrets for company.
“The Irishman” is now streaming on Netflix, but for cinema fans whose bladder can bear it, the film is worth seeing on the big screen.