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Film Review: The Irishman

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  25 Feb 2020 11:50 AM GMT

A Worthy Sequel

By Ambar Chatterjee

  • Release Date: 26/11/2019
  • Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

Martin Scorsese can be attributed with making three of the greatest gangster films of all time (Mean Street, Goodfellas, and Casino) and it’s not a surprise that he would be the one to tell us the story of James Riddle Hoffa (Al Pacino) and his surprising disappearance from the face of the earth. Hoffa was not only one of the most charismatic union leaders of American history but was also involved with the mob in more ways than one. There were widespread speculations about how he might have disappeared after running into a tangle with the mob and also because of his unapologetic manner of putting out his mind. One of the theories was that he was killed by Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a man who was involved as much with Hoffa as he was with the mob. He was Hoffa’s bodyguard and admitted to having killed the man. There were, however, widespread disagreements to his testimony and many believed it to be a dying man’s last-ditch effort to be famous. Scorsese takes us through the story of Frank and tries to show us how the relationship between him and Hoffa developed and why Sheeran killed the man who not only gave him stature and clout in the society but also made him the man that he was. Scorsese takes the account of Sheeran to be true and bases his tale on this very account.

Frank Sheeran meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) through a friend of his and the two immediately strike off an association that would last a lifetime. Russell was at that time the Italian mob boss who had his fingers in everything that went on in the state. Being impressed with the man, Russell gave Sheeran errands to run for him and that is how he started making his presence felt. When Russell is contacted by Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) after he starts running into security trouble, Russell introduces him to Frank who would end up being Hoffa’s bodyguard and closest aid till his last day. Once the basic premise is set, the film takes us through the tale of how Hoffa’s association with the mob fell off and why they had him whacked. Another aspect of the story is how it was Sheeran who had to take him out and how the fact weighed down on him till the last day of his life.

The Irishman is 3 hours and 29 minutes long and almost every second of that runtime has De Niro, Pacino or Pesci on screen. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that these three men act out the film within themselves and if they were not as brilliant as they are, this might have been a very difficult film to sit through. It’s true that the narrative never drags. We’re always moving ahead in the story and the back and forth between timelines help to sustain interest and keep the events fresh. Having said all that, it is still the charisma of the three stars that actually grabs our attention and keeps us hooked. Take for instance the scene where Al Pacino is attacked by an assailant in a courtroom. After quickly subduing the man, he takes the next few minutes to explain to the crowd how he did it and also lecturing on what one should do under similar circumstances. He also explains how well he raised his son who aided him in subduing the assailant. All this would have felt terribly boring had it not been for the charm of Pacino who makes you chuckle at his antics. I have no idea if Hoffa was of this nature and inclination but Pacino did sell him well as being just like that.

In most Scorsese films, De Niro plays authoritative and commanding characters who are powerful, ruthless and are always in command of their situations. The Irishman is a departure from that trait. Frank Sheeran plays second fiddle to Russell Bufalino in the beginning and then to Jimmy Hoffa. He is always someone who is told what to do and he is very good at doing what is asked of him. Seeing someone like De Niro getting bossed around was amusing. De Niro is brilliant in underplaying the part. He treats Russell with reverence for his position and power and even when he attains power and clout himself he never forgets his place. One of the scenes that broke my heart was the one towards the end when he and Pesci sit for breakfast and he gradually learns that the fateful day has arrived when he will have to kill Hoffa. His expression in this scene is tragic and yet he never for a second refuses what has been asked of him. These are the kind of scenes that elevates The Irishman much above anything that it could have aimed for.

Joe Pesci doesn’t act in films these days and it was Scorsese who got him out of his retirement for this one last tango. It’s safe to say that he turns in one of his best performances till date. He is at his best when he is sitting at a table with De Niro and making him understand something or asking him to do something. These are the scenes that are hypnotics just because of the manner in which they are essayed. I just loved that one scene where Pesci hands De Niro a ring that makes him a made-man. “You are my kid, do you know how powerful I just made you”, he says as he looks at him in a way that makes it evident that he is about to ask him to do something that wouldn’t be easy. We know that but De Niro doesn’t and that what makes the scene that much more interesting.

Industrial Lights and Magic (ILM) conjured a technology that let the actors perform without any contraptions that would make the future task of de-aging possible. Frankly speaking, I didn’t feel a thing when I was watching them perform. It all felt flawless and real. The only time you could spot the de-aging having been done was when you looked at the gait of these men who were playing forty-year-olds but moved about like their current ages. That is a very minor hiccup. The technology actually made the film possible and one has to give ILM their due in what they have achieved. If the best special effects are the ones that we can’t see, then ILM did the best job with visual effects this year. Their task should be respected even more because a lot of the film’s charm is derived out of the expressions of these actors and ILM got the digital rendering of the expressions spot on. That is one hell of a difficult thing to do if you ask me. Also, special mention has to be made of Thelma Schoonmaker. She is a long time collaborator of Scorsese and she has outdone herself once again here. I felt the editing of the film was one of its highlights and it elevated a large chunk of the film and the viewing experience as a whole.

I loved The Irishman for the performances and the numerous set pieces that make up a whole. It has a weaker story in comparison to the other more accomplished works of Scorsese but the three leading men never let you feel that. This is the story of a man who is forced to choose between the two men who led to his meteoric rise and the turmoil that he has to go through as he gets closer and closer to making that choice. This is also as much Hoffa’s story as it is Russell’s. We follow the three men all the way to their end and that adds the necessary full stop to their story and by the end of it all, we are satisfied with the payoffs.

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