A looming fear of mortality, a sense of self-righteousness about crime, and the unspoken guilt over the fallout on friends and family are some of the elements that have defined classic American gangster movies. Francis Ford Coppola, the godfather of this genre, may have taken a back seat with the passage of time and taste. But another seasoned practitioner hasn’t.
At the very least, then, Martin Scorsese’s 25th feature film is an event. The Irishman, which is being streamed on Netflix, is an indulgent 209-minute watch. The 77-year-old maestro of such acclaimed films as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Scorsese seems to have aged with a livewire Peter Pan-like quality.
Still fusing his penchant for a reflective study with gung-ho yarn-spinning bravado, Scorsese transports us through a trip that is alternately smooth and tumultuous, especially when it comes to the depiction of violence.
The Irishman has been adapted by Steven Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses. Scorsese’s let’s-inspect-the-gangster milieu-again endeavour raises great expectations, which it does fulfill to a fair extent. The Irishman demands our attention and admiration despite niggling reservations.
The film’s central character, who also serves as the narrator, is of Irish extraction and is portrayed by Scorsese’s longtime alter-ego Robert De Niro.
At the outset, an 80-ish Frank Sheeran (De Niro) details his life-altering encounters with more badfellas than good guys. A World War II veteran and presently a truck driver, Frank inexorably rises, rung by murderous rung, to the top of the hierarchy of the ruling criminal class.
His voice-over seems addressed as much to himself as it does to the audience. Without disclosing too much of the dense plotline, suffice it to say that Frank’s subsequent alliance with the tempestuous labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and the mafia honcho Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) is fraught with perils.
Frank has no option but to become a cold-blooded hit man in an era when American politics witnessed attempts by the mafia to subvert the rise of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, the assassination of President John F Kennedy and a rash of gangland wars.
It’s to Scorsese’s credit that he doesn’t permit the political sub-text to subsume the central story of the Irishman who becomes a remorseless killer and is now a forlorn octogenarian in an old-age nursing home, looking back with mixed feelings at a world not of his making.
The always impressive Al Pacino and Joe Pesci (whom Scorsese forced out of a nine-year retirement), round up the rest of the spot-on supporting cast. The chemistry between the director and his actors is palpable despite some tedious segments of dramaturgy. The occasional heavy-going proceedings are punctuated by humorous asides, courtesy the repartee-heavy dialogue.
The flashback-strewn narrative is adroitly corralled by Scorsese’s go-to editor Thelma Schoonmaker (pause for trivia: whatever prompted her to cut the international version of Anurag Kashyap’s ill-fated Bombay Velvet?)
One can only conjecture about the accuracy of the details of Frank’s life. It’s also deeply ironic that Scorsese, who recently lambasted the techno-jugglery of the Marvel Comics superhero extravaganzas, has himself extensively utilised visual effects to pre-age the three main male actors. Moreover, be it the wives or the daughters of the mobsters, the film’s few women characters are relegated to the fringes of the screenplay.