‘The Irishman’ review: De Niro & Pacino reunion betters ‘Heat’ in Scorsese’s epic crime drama

Thrilling gangster tale is perfect final fling for cinema's great pals

As soon as the doo-wop harmonies of The Five Satins’ ‘In the Still of the Night’ ring out during the opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s epic crime flick, The Irishman, it’s clear he’s revelling in the genre he did so much to define. It’s like Mean Streets all over again.

Based on I Heard You Paint Houses – the memoirs of hitman Frank Sheeran, written by Charles Brandt – The Irishman sees an elderly Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sat at a restaurant table reflecting on life. Flash back to the 1950s and we’re led through the World War II vet’s days in Pennsylvania racking up dead bodies under the orders of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Years pass by and Sheeran’s loyalties grow confused by a developing friendship with powerful labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). His struggle to balance these two commitments is at the core of Scorsese’s dark drama.

With a runtime of three-and-a-half-hours and a production cost of $159m, this is Marty’s longest and most expensive feature to date. Considerable post-production work has gone in to de-aging septuagenarians De Niro, Pesci and Pacino so that we can see them in their thirties, forties and fifties. It’s a triumph of the updated technology that it works so seamlessly – barely perceptible in the actors’ youngest forms before becoming pretty much undetectable thereafter.

At 209 minutes, it’s also impressive that Scorsese’s late career entry only falters in the middle section. As attention lingers on the Kennedy brothers’ increasing public profile in the ’60s, the movie starts to feel bloated. Of course, the political family’s success did have consequences on the business exploits of Hoffa, Bufalino and co., but the extensive coverage of union politics, depositions and court hearings forces the pace to drop. Thankfully, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay more than makes up for it in the closing third. Dots are connected, loose ends are tied up and the story is reeled in for a taut and satisfying conclusion.

Thankfully, none of the megawatt, all-star cast disappoint. Pesci shows no signs of rustiness after returning from retirement; Harvey Keitel appears in a Scorsese project for the first time in over 30 years; and Pacino is directed by him for the first time ever. The latter is a hoot as the volatile, profane Hoffa, particularly so when clashing with Stephen Graham’s wonderfully antagonistic New Jersey gangster Tony Pro. But the focal point is undoubtedly De Niro vs Pacino. 2008 thriller Righteous Kill the only film De Niro regrets making with Pacino – can surely be excised from the records now, and Heat contextualised as the starter for this sumptuous main course. When the dust finally settles though, will The Irishman really be considered as top tier Marty? Not quite. The bar is too high.  But as an absorbing latter-day entry into the Scorsese canon? The Irishman works just fine.

If this is to be Pesci, De Niro and Scorsese’s final fling together, then they couldn’t wish to end on a better note. The director’s 26th feature film is a meditative and classy offering. Hollywood’s old cronies are still the real deal – magnetic, riveting and unique. Let’s hope we see them again soon. 

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