The Irishman reminds me a bit of Tarantino's recent hit Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, both because it's a period piece and also because you need to know a little history to understand the direction of the narrative. The movie, while following Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as the titular character, revolves around Teamsters union boss James Riddle Hoffa (played with intense and hilarious fervor by Al Pacino). Fortunately Frank goes to great lengths to narrate the story for the audience and provides a healthy dose of context for those of us not from the Kennedy era. The main thing you need to know going in is that Jimmy Hoffa had mob ties, and that he vanished in 1975 and was presumed murdered by mob bosses for being "uncooperative".
The movie unfolds over four acts, told over several decades by Frank Sheeran. In act one, Frank is introduced as a WWII veteran who is stuck driving food delivery trucks in and around Philadelphia. He has the bright idea to steal some of the steaks that he's delivering, and sell them to local mobster Felix "Skinny Razor" DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale). Eventually his brazen willingness to break the law catches the eye of Italian mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who happens to be a mobster on a national level. His calm demeanor is both comical yet terrifying. A soon to be classic line encompasses Bufalino perfectly: "You might be demonstrating a failure to show appreciation." Under his mentorship, Frank becomes a ruthless action man for the italian mob and explains with rather entertaining dispassion how he does his job properly. In act two, Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the outspoken and fearless president of the National Teamsters Union. Their relationship grows and Hoffa becomes Frank's second mentor. Together they use intimidation and bribery to gain influence until the election of John Kennedy, who subsequently appoints his brother Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General and immediately goes after Hoffa.
The first two and a half hours are the most fun, and in particular the end of act three is some of the most tense and dramatic storytelling that I have had the pleasure of seeing in recent memory. At a dinner celebration for Frank (who eventually becomes a Teamster boss himself), tensions between Hoffa, Bufalino and the other mobsters reaches a breaking point, and the decision is made to make Hoffa disappear. But in a gut wrenching twist, Frank is the one tasked to do the job. In a beautiful display of cinematography over a thirty-minute buildup, Scorsese forces the viewer to the edge of their seats with the dread of what's about to happen. Robert De Niro's performance in these moments is master class; the inner conflict is all the more apparent thanks all of the time we spent watching Frank being raised by Bufalino and Hoffa in equal measure. I plan to watch this part of the film again, probably with a notepad.
Getting away from the plot a bit, the movie is actually surprisingly funny. In one particular scene, someone insults an older Bufalino at a dinner reception. He and Frank exchange glances, and the frame suddenly cuts to a hotel bed covered in guns. Frank then narrates with excess detail and hilarious dispassion the ideal weapon for a public assassination. Moments like these are littered throughout the film and keep it from getting too bogged down in it's violence. It's impressive how quickly jokes fly, given the disproportionate amount of people getting shot point blank in the head. But anyone who has seen Scorsese's Goodfellas or The Departed will feel right at home.
The heart of the movie is definitely Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. De Niro was de-aged with apparently exorbitantly priced CGI, as he is supposed to be younger than both Pacino and Pesci. While it's fairly obvious, I was never too distracted to not enjoy what was unfolding onscreen. Plus he's kind of made a career of holding one scowling facial expression, so that probably was a little easier to edit. Al Pacino is a riot as Hoffa, and is certainly one of the most arrogant, over-the-top characters that Pacino has played in awhile. Pesci as Bufalino is chilling, and it's fun to seem him as the boss in this gangster movie after being a junior-level mobster in Goodfellas so many years ago. The mentorship between De Niro's character and both Pacino and Pesci is amazingly entertaining.
The only thing keeping me from calling this movie perfect is it's length. Three hours and (almost) thirty minutes is a very long time, and while occurring infrequently the movie does drag a bit. This is most apparent in the fourth act where Frank introspects during his final years, and attempts to achieve reconciliation for all the murders he's committed. It doesn't really offer any closure or seem necessary to wrapping up the narrative.
Ultimately that doesn't even come close to making me not recommend seeing The Irishman. There's a reason Martin Scorsese will forever be known for his gangster movies. Combining comedy, violence, brotherhood and drama, he has created a formula that continues to work. The fact that he continues to make excellent movies at 76 years old blows my mind. Well done.