Review: Scorsese's 'The Irishman' a masterful reflection on a life of crime

The legendary filmmaker's three-and-a-half-hour epic is worth every last minute

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Martin Scorsese is looking back in "The Irishman," a solemn meditation on gangster life orchestrated with a master's touch. 

"Goodfellas" it's not; Scorsese made that pulse-pounding 1990 epic when he was 48 years old and at the peak of his powers. Now 76, the filmmaker is contemplating existence from a different perspective, and ruminating on the toll the life of a wiseguy takes on both the individual himself and those around him.

Robert De Niro and Ray Romano in "The Irishman."

"The Irishman" moves slowly and pensively, invests in the natural rhythm of conversations and stops to smell the roses. It's a bookend to "Goodfellas" and to Scorsese's career-long fascination with the streets, populated by his regulars and with nods to his legendary career. 

The film opens with a long shot through the hallways of a nursing home that finally settles on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), elderly and alone.

The Five Satins' "In the Still of the Night" is playing, a thread that will weave throughout the film, and Frank begins narrating the story of how he went from a working stiff to "painting houses," mob talk for delivering hits.

Frank flashes back to a long road trip to Detroit he took with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, magnetic in his first screen appearance in nine years) and their wives. They're headed to the wedding of Russell's niece, but the real purpose of the trip is to take out Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who used Frank as his right hand man for years.

Jimmy will trust Frank because of the rapport they've built up over time, so it's decided Frank will be the trigger man. Painting houses is a truly ugly business. 

That's the shell of "The Irishman," but it barely scratches the surface of Scorsese's dissertation on the mafia and crime life.

It's about the coded language of the mob, the way things are discussed without being discussed, and the meetings, sit downs and tiny exchanges that decide one's fate. If you hear "he's going," he's already gone. 

It's about the lessons, the tricks of the trade, one picks up over the years. "Whenever anybody says they're a little concerned," Frank informs in voiceover, "they're very concerned." A tip to remember should a fracas erupt: "Charge at a gun, run away from a knife." Steven Zaillian's screenplay, adapted from Charles Brandt's book, is filled with these useful tidbits. 

It's about the little moments — the nights spent at the bowling alley, the ice cream sundaes, the long car trips and the stops along the way — that make up a life. "The Irishman" takes its time and lets its story unfold freely. Scorsese is drunk on details, and with a three-and-a-half hour runtime, he spares none.  

It's about faces, especially Pesci's, that tell stories that can't be told in words. Scorsese gets outstanding, best-in-years performances out of his cast, De Niro and Pacino included. But it's Pesci who creates the most lasting impression, with a haunting performance that dances with ghosts of Pesci's past, both on- and off-screen. 

Other familiar faces appear; Harvey Keitel reunites with Scorsese for the first time since "The Last Temptation of Christ," and Welker White, who played the babysitter who refused to travel without her yellow hat in "Goodfellas," plays Hoffa's wife, Josephine.

Others drop in and pay their respects, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, Sebastian Maniscalco, Anna Paquin and rapper Action Bronson among them, while Robbie Robertson, a Scorsese collaborator going back to "The Last Waltz," turns in a brooding, jazz-inflected score. "The Irishman" is Scorsese's "This Is Your Life," a grand culmination of his 50-year career. 

"The Irishman" canvases several decades, from WWII to the early 2000s, focusing in on the '60s and '70s and landmark moments such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The much-discussed de-aging technology that is used on De Niro's face works surprisingly well; it's De Niro's physicality that sometimes betrays the movie magic.

Long Island is a stand-in for Metro Detroit once the story arrives in Metro Detroit, and the exterior of Machus Red Fox is recreated for the scene of Hoffa's last public sighting. (Locals may grouse about the truss bridge that resembles nothing in Bloomfield Township, but it's a minor detail.)  

All told, maestro Scorsese conducts a grand symphony with "The Irishman," a movie about a lifetime and the dramatic weight of decisions made. Frank is feeling them, Scorsese is feeling them, we're all feeling them. Movies don't get much bigger than this. 

'The Irishman'


Rated R: for pervasive language and strong violence

Running time: 210 minutes