Three hours and 20 minutes in the world of instant gratification is more than just being different. It’s making a statement, but would you expect anything else from Martin Scorsese?
At first, I thought this would be the story of Frank, the Irish consiglione of the infamous Corleone family of The Godfather. But then, this is Martin Scorsese we are talking about. Nothing is as it seems with him. You expect right and the plot turns left. You think straight and the story hangs a sudden U. So, spoiler alert. Netflix’s The Irishman is not a prequel, sequel or what have you of Mario Puzo’s epic novel. This is a fresh new story, albeit about the Mob.
The story is set in the present or a little before the present and is recounted almost entirely as a flashback. Quite different from The Godfather’s parallel storytelling technique where we see the lives of the young and daring Vito Corleone and the old patriarch that he becomes later unfolding simultaneously. So, in a sense the storytelling technique used is more conventional and simplistic than you’d expect from Scorsese.
Here on, it’s a complete departure from what we have come to expect in the modern world of gangster movies because Scorsese’s style remains firmly embedded in the old school. None of the Tarantino style blood and gore and histrionics. Instead, Scorsese relies on the power of his characters who are built on the backs of a supremely talented cast to deliver the goods to the audience.
The story itself is about the confessions of an Irish man, a former truck driver turned Mob hitman in post WWII America. It all stems from a chance meeting with Mobster Russ Buffalino at a gas station (petrol pump for us). Thereafter it all feels like a game of chance as Frank moves into the shadowy world of the mafia. But streaks of Frank’s brutal nature are already visible when he recounts tales of his days in military service during the war when he was posted in Italy. His lack of scruples too becomes apparent when he steals from the goods he delivers as a truck driver, and is shameless enough to admit that he should have gone to prison for it when he is narrating his life’s story.
Essayed by the great Robert de Niro to perfection, Frank also shows a vulnerable side to himself. Brutal though he may be, he loves his daughter Peggy. A chance show of violence alienates Peggy from her father forever and Frank is left confused and burdened with guilt for the rest of his life. Guilt because he knows that it is his descent into the world of violence and Peggy’s tacit knowledge of it that makes the gulf between them unbridgeable. Confused because in the male dominated sexist world of the 1950s through to the ‘80s, Frank has convinced himself that everything he has ever done has been for the family. It doesn’t matter that he never once articulates that throughout the near three and a half hour runtime.
In this film we see the super talented Joe Pesci return from retirement to play Russ Buffalino. It’s his most menacing performance yet. His demeanour and his friendliness is almost disarming until you realise what Russ really is. It gets to a point where Joe and Russ become inseparable as people. It is almost impossible to believe that this is the same Joe that played a comic role in Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapons series. Comparatively, Harvey Keitel depicting the brooding Angelo Bruno, another mafia boss, feels like a passerby. There isn’t much for him to do to be honest.
Things crackle with electricity when Al ‘Scarface’ Pacino enters the screen as the firebrand union president Jimmy Hoffa. As before, Pacino and de Niro together keep you riveted. From the time they get to know each other when Jimmy is at the top of the chain, banker to the Mob, and Frank is still very much a rising star in this shady world, you are aware that something is brewing and this unlikely friendship will have a twist in its tale. It is Scorsese’s genius that you never guess what that sordid twist will eventually be, and I’m not going to tell you either.
In this age of instant gratification and abundance of SFX generated action, The Irishman with its length and subtle storytelling may come across as a bit laidback. But that is precisely why it gets all of the five stars I have to throw at it because c’mon what else do you expect when Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese come together to create a Mob flick? I can’t explain anymore. Go watch it. Preferably with some fine scotch on ice on a Sunday afternoon. You won’t regret it.