Coming off Rocky, Sylvester Stallone pinned his hopes on compounding his stardom with FIST … and coming off Batman, Jack Nicholson starred in Hoffa … neither were big hits, and their middling reception probably sent the stars back to the mines of repeating the schtick that had worked. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman goes over much the same ground as these films. So, a question few are asking at the moment is whether the film – getting some theatrical play for awards consideration, but primarily made for Netflix – would have been able to hold its own commercially in a conventional release, even with the decades-old tailwind of feeling like the third in a trilogy commenced by Goodfellas and Casino. Maybe being on the streaming giant inoculates it against a sense of failure or even commercial disappointment and this three-hour gangland/union epic of seamy American history (with a gimmick CGI youthening effect that’s initially offputting) would always have been a tough sell even for fans of the earlier films – it lacks their sexiness (simply in femme presence but also sinuous camerawork, luxurious settings and a sense of how seductive the underworld can be) and is in the end an old man’s film about the consequences of loyalty to the worst causes and a life-sapping betrayal. Not exactly fun, then.
In a hospice, aged Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) confesses to us – though not to his priest or the FBI – and we flash back to his decades-long involvement with the Italian mob, represented by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and the Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). With Harvey Keitel in the mix as Angelo Bruno, that’s a formidable array of long-serving Hollywood gangster stars – with Pacino, turning it on in a way that he hasn’t in a few years, new to the Scorsese stable and, after the teases of Godfather II and Heat, finally getting to play many scenes against his nearest rival DeNiro. Yes, this lacks complicated female characters – which Goodfellas and Casino had – but there’s an absolutely crucial dual performance from Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin as Frank’s daughter, shocked by his brutalising of a grocer who’s jostled her as a child, instinctively (correctly) terrified of cold-hearted Uncle Russell, and a devoted admirer of the not-uncontroversial Hoffa.
The deal is that in order to extend more influence over the Teamsters – especially when borrowing from the union’s pension fund – Bufalino arranges for Frank to become Hoffa’s bodyguard-sidekick, a relationship that lasts for years and through huge gulps of Oliver Stone-type history (Bay of Pigs, JFK) but comes to an end when the Mob decides to favour Hoffa’s firecracker Italian rival Tony Pro (Stephen Graham) and makes it clear to Frank that he’ll have to take a lead role in Hoffa’s famous disappearance. This evokes another Pacino mob credit, Donnie Brasco, and its dictum that the mafia always send your best friend to kill you … and the Scorsese style finally kicks in for the escalating suspense of the hit scene, with betrayal only at the last moment and the familiar notion that the assassin kills the better part of himself when he shoots his friend.
Throughout the film, captions tell how walk-on hoods die – usually shot several times in the face in a parking lot in 1979 – and this blunt dismissal contrasts with Frank’s more elaborate (and fanciful) accounts of famous deaths, including the assassination of Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalo), which was the subject of a Peter Boyle film in the 1970s. The fact that this weaves in and out of other movies on the interrelationship of money, crime, politics and gossip in America means revisiting a classic genre, with callbacks to The Roaring Twenties as well as The Godfather, but the framing of the whole thing as a tale told in a sickroom by a hollow, dying failure of a human being gives it an end-of-genre feel, as if this were a tombstone for the gangster the way The Wild Bunch or Unforgiven are grave markers for the cowboy.