Martin Scorsese ushers in another epic gangster movie in the The Irishman, now streaming live on Netflix. The movie stars Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a small-time truck driver who becomes a confidante and hitman to a crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa is the legendary and ruthless head of the Teamsters trucking labor union. The movie covers the long arc of their relationship, from the first serendipitous encounter between Frank and Russell through the tense relationship between Hoffa, the Italian crime families, and the federal prosecutors who try to lock them up. The Irishman also includes a slew of top-quality supporting performances, and they all weave in and out of the complex relationship between the three major players.
Throughout the movie, Scorsese uses the decisions forced on Frank by his crime boss and union boss to explore the morally and ethically ambiguous world of organized crime. One highlight is a face off between Hoffa and a rising star in the Teamsters. They find themselves in prison together and begin arguing over whose criminal conviction carries more moral weight. Bufalino argues that fraud, which involves simply stealing funds from the union pension, is more defensible than extortion, which includes a physical threat against a person. Yet both sides use violence and threats as part of their standard trade practices. These exchanges set up critical dilemmas for Frank, and become important plot points.
Fans of Scorsese and organized crime movies will find a lot to love in The Irishman. Produced by De Niro, Scorsese has paid his characteristic attention to the details of the period. Each scene reflects the craftsmanship that has earned him a well-deserved reputation as a film master. The casting is also superb, as each supporting player plays an intentional role in furthering the plot and adding dimension to the main characters. The “aging” (or, more appropriately, de-aging) of the lead characters over what amounts to a forty-plus year period will likely earn The Irishman major award nominations as well. De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino seem to evolve from youth to old age seamlessly and naturally.
Clocking in at three and a half hours, The Irishman would have likely had a tough slog in wide release in commercial theaters. Despite its execution and craftsmanship, the movie’s pacing is slow, even plodding at times. Audiences will need some patience to make it through to the end. For this Scorsese epic, the value is in the journey, not the destination.