“The Irishman”: Scorsese’s Netflix debut is a master class in filmmaking

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Director Martin Scorsese is in his late seventies now. At his age and estimated wealth, he doesn’t need to make movies anymore. Making a mob film seems even less likely. That didn’t stop Scorsese from uniting with three on-screen legends to make another mob film. “The Irishman,” a Netflix film released on November 27, is a masterpiece by the legendary director.

The story follows hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) throughout his career working for the mafia. Sheeran, now in his 80s, reflects on his long-standing service to mafia don Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his involvement with the controversial union organizer Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). This story spans multiple decades as Sheeran recounts his humble origins as a truck driver to high-ranking mafia-hired gun.

De Niro’s portrayal as Sheeran is flat and often emotionless, fitting for an assassin. De Niro also provides a voice-over for relevant information. De Niro’s cold delivery acts as a sort of guide bringing us into the day to day of the mob life, which is treated almost with the mundanity of a boring day job. While the stoic delivery might seem flavorless, De Niro manages to make it interesting with his facial expressions showing us cracks behind his cold exterior.

Pesci portrays Bufalino as a quiet and calculating mob boss. Despite always appearing friendly and personable, there is an energy about him that is always in control. Though his character is never openly violent, his piercing eyes suggest that it’s not off the table. Pesci is very restrained in this role, and this is playing against type compared to his roles in “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” I personally liked Pesci playing something different. This role is also remarkable because Pesci, who had grown tired of playing gangster characters, came out of retirement to accept this role.

Unlike De Niro and Pesci, Pacino gets to let loose with his portrayal of Hoffa. Charming, aggressive and never to back down, Hoffa affects everyone he encounters. He can rouse hundreds with an energetic speech and he can create the worst enemies for his polarizing nature. Pacino’s Hoffa is often so egotistical and larger than life that he plays well off De Niro’s mundanity and Pesci’s quiet nature. Pacino also brings some much-needed humor to the film because his character is so energetic.

The most remarkable achievement of the film is the use of CGI to de-age the three main actors. Pesci, Pacino and De Niro play their characters through multiple decades, despite the actors being in their 70s. CGI is extensively used to make them look younger during the appropriate decades. On paper, this probably sounds improbable and ridiculous. In practice, this works way better than you’d think. I’ve heard some people say that the CGI was a little distracting, but I disagree. With countless years of experience and an ageless energy, these three actors are natural portraying just about anything.   

With everything that went into this film, it’s a miracle that it even got made. My girlfriend and I have talked about this film even before we started dating. I heard rumblings about “The Irishman” as far back as 2012, when it was still in development hell. When Netflix officially got involved, it put up an estimated budget of at least $160 million, making it their most expensive film ever produced. 

This money did not go to waste. Every set, every extra, every costume and every camera angle was made with perfection in mind. Scorsese has not lost his touch.

Ultimately, “The Irishman” is a reflective look at the mob life. This really rounds our Scorsese’s body of work. “Goodfellas” was energetic because the characters started out as kids who grew up idolizing the mafia life. “Casino” had the flavor of Vegas thrown in, but its characters were distinctly middle aged in perspective and priorities. “The Irishman” is the elderly look of the mob life, being more somber and distant, through the eyes of someone who was lucky enough to live that long. Perhaps it’s fitting because this will very likely be the last movie of its kind. If “The Irishman” is the last hurrah for a classic Scorsese mob film, this is an amazing farewell that satisfies on all levels.