Mark Cunliffe 🇵🇸’s review published on Letterboxd:
When you're a filmmaker of over fifty years standing like Martin Scorsese is, your work comes with a lot of expectations. When your next project sees the promise of ostensibly returning to your roots with key roles for two actors you last worked with in the 1990s in what arguably remains two of the most genre defining productions, then your film will also come under a lot of scrutiny. As a result, Scorsese must be relieved to see that his latest picture, The Irishman, has come in for universal praise and a glut of gushing 5 star reviews here on Letterboxd. But...I have to say that for a long stretch of this movie, I was feeling a little underwhelmed. As the film lumbered towards its midpoint, I was beginning to experience the same kind of feeling I had watching the latest film from another veteran director, Ken Loach. As I said in my review of Sorry We Missed You, I reached the middle of that film feeling that I couldn't see my rating as anything more than a 3.5, but then something almost imperceptibly clicked with that movie, just as it does here. As with that film, emotion sets in and you realise this is going to stay with you for some time. The praise that has been showered on The Irishman isn't just hype.
They say that old soldiers don't die, they just fade away. Perhaps the same adage can be applied to old gangsters too. That's certainly the case for Frank Sheeran, the titular (placky) Irishman and a mob subordinate who rises through the ranks of the Teamsters union from humble truck driver to the must trusted aide and confident of its president, Jimmy Hoffa, played here by Al Pacino. In covering Sheeran's rise, Scorsese's film has to take us from his experiences in Italy in WWII to his final days in a nursing home in the early '00s. This presents a problem for any filmmaker, one that is usually met by either casting two actors - one young to portray the formative years, the other old to tackle the more present day - or casting an actor and using extensive make-up to convince at each stage of his life. Neither is satisfactory really and often requires great suspensions of disbelief, but Scorsese circumvents this issue by placing his trust in technology. Or does he? There is much talk of the de-aging CGI used here, but I found it as unconvincing as those other more established options. It's one thing to de-age the features of your leading man, but De Niro's physicality, how he moves and how he holds himself, is still that of a man in his late 70s. As m'colleague Graham Williamson points out in his review, this technology is less of a problem with Joe Pesci, because his character is a little older than De Niro's and because Pesci is such a rare screen presence now that we are less familiar with the effects the ravages of time have had upon him.
Speaking of Pesci, it's interesting to see him play a more thoughtful, placid and subtle character than the ones he has played in previous Scorsese gangster epics. The volatility here is instead provided by an on form Al Pacino's mercurial Jimmy Hoffa. Whilst the partnership of Pacino and De Niro is never going to top that of their first outing in Heat (no I'm not counting Godfather Part II because they don't share the screen there) this is obviously far, far above the ill advised project that was Righteous Kill. For me, the greatest scene they share together here is a simple one; it sees De Niro's Sheeran go to the Pacino's increasingly arrogant Hoffa to advise him to be careful. It's just a dialogue heavy scene between two actors and it is spellbinding. You can keep all the explosive setpieces in any MCU film you care to name, this is what cinema is all about for me. I was hooked, and it's so, so good to see De Niro and Pacino appear in something worthy of their talents and giving their all for a change.
A sprawling epic, The Irishman clocks in at a bum-numbing three and a half hours. As I say, it only really came alive for me around the half way mark when Pacino enters the fray and those 'house painting' skills that De Niro's Sheeran possesses begin to take their toll emotionally. By this stage, I was totally immersed into this world and, mentally, the rating just kept going up and up. It is perhaps telling that it is around this point that the film becomes less reliant on the de-aging CGI however, though undoubtedly it is the last half of The Irishman and that crucial last act where Scorsese's story truly comes together. Here, the film becomes a meditation on mortality in a way that Scorsese's previous gangland epics couldn't possibly reach. In Goodfellas and Casino we were always acutely aware that the lives of each and every character was always in danger, but it is only here that time itself can be the killer, as wryly acknowledged when one fed informs Sheeran, now a resident in a nursing home, that his attorney has died. "Who did it?" Sheeran immediately asks. "Cancer" comes the bemused reply, following a beat that stretches across the generational divide. Life has moved on, but Sheeran is a man out of time preserved in aspic and, like an endangered species, left alone; often as a result of his own lethal actions. It's clear that Sheeran is one of the lucky ones, a man who has lived to tell the tale (or at least plead the fifth), and his good fortune is in sharp contrast to the plethora of minor supporting characters who are introduced along with a caption explaining the violent death that ultimately befell them.
A film about growing old and reflecting on the life you chose could only be made now, by creative talents who have grown old together and so, to that end, The Irishman isn't Goodfellas. It isn't Casino. "It's what it is".