How did it take so long to get a Martin Scorsese collaboration with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro? Did we somehow offend the movie gods?
Seeing Pacino and DeNiro together in Heat provided one of the great film moments. Their most recent reunion in Righteous Kill (with 50 Cent) provided zero great film moments. We deserve better, and we got it with Scorsese’s latest mafia epic, The Irishman, released Nov. 27 to Netflix.
“I heard you paint houses” are the first words Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa says to DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran, an Irish hit and cleanup man that got in good with Philly mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). The film is adapted from the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, who wrote it after speaking to the real Sheeran on his deathbed, listening as the gangster confessed to all of his crimes, including what happened to infamous teamster Jimmy Hoffa.
What does “paint houses” mean? A guy that “paints houses” is someone willing to carry out a hit, splattering blood onto walls like paint. In the movie, Sheeran responds, “Yes, I do. And I also do my own carpentry.” He cleans up the mess.
After his first conversation with Hoffa, Sheeran tells Bufalino that he felt like he just got off the phone with General Patton.
The film spans from the 1950s to the ‘70s by using a digital de-aging process to make the actors (in their 70s) be able to play characters in their 40s without missing a beat.
The resulting movie is epic — and I mean epic. Clocking in at three and a half hours, it bests the three-hour marks of The Wolf of Wall Street and Casino, Scorcesse’s other longest films.
The Irishman begins by showing the work life of Sheeran, a meat delivery guy in Philly. When he begins to use his route to deliver stuff for the Philly crime family, he eventually gets pinched. He decides to keep his mouth shut, proving himself valuable to the Bufalino crime family. But when Sheeran makes a side deal to torch a laundromat to help out a friend, not knowing he torched a business belonging Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Bufalino steps in to save him. The only way Sheeran can stay alive is to kill the guy that hired him.
He does it with ease, desensitized to killing by his service in World War II. He explains his role as a hitman as just “taking orders.”
This backstory alone is entertaining as hell, and it all comes before we even see Pacino hit the screen about 45 minutes in. When Hoffa gets heat for being the leader of the largest union in the United States, Sheeran is brought in to provide extra muscle to protect the mob’s interests.
The film is Scorsese at his best, part mob movie and part history lesson, connecting the dots on some of the 20th century’s greatest conspiracies: Did JFK get elected because of the mob? Did the teamsters pay for Las Vegas? And, most importantly, does Sheeran really know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
The answers provided to all these questions are overwhelmingly convincing, in part because this is Scorsese’s best crafted and best cast film in more than two decades. Pacino in particular shines — he does for yelling what Samuel L. Jackson does for the word “motherf#!ker.”
Some people might argue that this is just another Marty mob movie, but it’s so much more. The final act shows in detail what happens in the end to people in that life. Sure, Goodfellas concluded with Henry Hill talking about living in witness protection after ratting out his friends, but what if there was another hour showing rather than telling the consequences to those actions?
The Irishman is a movie about a man living with his regrets after painting himself into a corner where he had no choice but to follow orders. Seeing former giants in Marty’s wiseguy crime world languishing in wheelchairs and drinking cheap grape juice is what the director wants you to see.
Maybe it’s somewhat reflective, as the stalwart director and lead actors look back on their respective filmographies, with less in front of them than behind. Either way, The Irishman finds a pack of true masters at the peak of their art. It took more than 50 years to get all these guys together, but the result is worth the wait — and three and a half hours of your time.