Would you like to be a part of this, Frank? Would you like to be a part of this history?

The Irishman ( 2019 )

  |   Nov. 2, 2019

Jimmy Hoffa was an American labor union leader, serving as president of the teamsters union from 1957 until 1971, despite being in prison from 1961 onwards, when his resignation coincided with his release, part of a pardon agreement with Richard Nixon. He was known to have connections with organised crime, and even had Bobby Kennedy assemble a "Get Hoffa" squad in an attempt to rid the country of not just him, but what he represented. He disappeared in 1975,  declared dead a number of years later, but his case remains unsolved. It's widely accepted that he was eliminated by the mob, who were concerned by his attempts to wrest back control of the teamsters after his release from prison. In a 2004 book, "I Heard You Paint Houses", journalist Charles Brandt claims that a mob assassin and friend of Hoffa's, Frank Sheeran, confessed to the murder.

The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, but beyond that, it is a reunion of cinematic royalty. Scorsese takes the director's chair, with De Niro leading as Sheeran.  Joe Pesci, who had to be forced out of retirement, supports as Russel Buffalino,  and Al Pacino takes on the role of Hoffa. Remarkably, despite both being stalwarts of the gangster genere, it's the first time Pacino and Scorsese have worked together. It's a Netflix feature, and their decision not to give it a full cinematic release some feel it deserves has led to controversy, and to a number of cinema chains boycotting it. However, Scorsese has claimed they were the only ones willing to take a risk on his project, which had been in the works for several years.

In true Scorsese fashion, the movie is as an epic tale of the life of the our gangsters, chronicling their journey from young to old men, a luxury not afforded to many in their business. In essence, it tells two stories, the first about Frank Sheeran's life, and the second about the events surrounding the disappearance of Hoffa. Frank and Russel first meet by chance at a gas station, and, seduced by the lifestyle Russel embodies, Frank gradually works his way up in the mob underworld, helped by both Russel and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). He is eventually introduced to Jimmy Hoffa, and the two develop a close relationship. Where Hoffa is wild and unpredictable, Frank is calm and considered. As the years pass and Hoffa grows more erratic, Frank is charged by the mob with keeping him in check.

One of the more prominent talking points related to the production of The Irishman was about the use of de-aging technology. What we've seen in similar epics is the use of make up to make young men look old, but Scorsese uses digital technology to make old men look young. This has been done on a smaller scale in recent years, such as Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel, but here, unfortunately it's hard not to conclude that the technology undermines the narrative. The scenes with young versions of the leading men come across as fake at best, and cartoonish at worst. A prime example of its failings occurs In a scene that should establish not just Frank's troubled relationship with family, but also his status as a man to be feared. A local shopkeeper has the audacity to lay his hands on his daughter Peggy, and Frank beats him to within an inch of his life. The problem is that we've seen fearsome De Niro before, in Goodfellas and Raging Bull to name but a few, and this is not him. Whatever the limited success of the de-aging process on the actor's faces, it cannot hide an elderly physique, and Frank Sheeran looks like he couldn't hurt a fly.

The Irishman is a multi-layered movie, and strong, reserved performances from De Niro and Pesci are at its heart. It's a tale of power and influence, but also a meditation on the ageing process, as the characters must reflect on their changing values as time passes them by. A number of scenes, particularly with Hoffa and his chief rival, Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham), are classic Scorsese, and wonderfully entertaining to watch, while others, such as when Frank must console Hoffa's wife, are powerful in their understated nature. However, there is a certain unevenness to it. The story of Frank's life from his meeting with Russel, seems drawn out at times, and it's only when Hoffa arrives that the movie takes on a different dimension, and the pool of talent, from the director's chair to the extensive cast, starts to tell. It clocks in at an extreme 209 minutes, but to the director's credit, it never seems to drag. At times, some aspects, particularly Frank's family life, even feel underdeveloped. Anna Paquin, who stars as Peggy Sheeran, has just one line in the movie. Overall, It's not quite as polished an effort as the assortment have managed in the past, and it's hard to look beyond the failings of the de-aging technology, but any Martin Scorsese movie is a cinematic experience not worth passing up.