Al Pacino edges Robert De Niro by one with eight Oscar nominations, but De Niro has taken home two of the coveted gold bald statues to Pacino’s one. The pair are two of the greatest actors of a winding-down generation who, in “The Irishman,” the latest from mob movie maestro Martin Scorsese, get a shot at putting a crowning jewel on their storied careers. Both had parts in Frances Ford Coppola’s timeless “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), in which De Niro played the youthful version of Vito Corleone (gold statue numero uno) and Pacino played his future son, Michael – and the two were never onscreen together. Some 20 years later they shared the screen as cat and mouse in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995) with Pacino’s dogged cop getting the better of De Niro’s quiet criminal. Here, where the two play real-life mob enforcer Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), there’s a something of a payback. (To do full and accurate accounting, the icons took a hit for their part in the tepid 2008 cop drama “Righteous Kill.” Not that you needed to know, but.)

Much will be made of the (near) three-and-a-half-hour runtime of “The Irishman,” but it goes by in a blip as it hops around a 50-year period, with much of the focus on the Hoffa years – the early ’60s to 1975, when the labor lord went missing. The cause and culprit remain an American mystery, though Scorsese and his talented screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) work from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” to offer up a theory with strong conviction (Brandt’s book was based on interviews with Sheeran, who died in 2003). The implied question of the book’s title is a polite way to ask a tough guy if he does hits; a casual “yes” is how De Niro’s Frank responds in the film.

The narrative structure, as you might guess, hangs from Frank’s POV as he talks to us, balding and near death, from the confines of a nursing home. Frank’s the object of the film’s title who gets in tight with the Philly mob. It’s a slow courtship. Initially he’s just the driver of a meat truck that loses slabs of beef now and then, with the prime cuts finding themselves onto the plates of capos. When Frank gets pinched for a disappearing act, the Philly mob’s version of Tom Hagen, Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) gets him off and introduces him to his cousin Russell (Joe Pesci), a steak lover and a man who’s got his hands in everything. Frank starts doing small jobs for Russell and his higher-up, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel, with just a wisp of a mustache), who appreciate his loyalty and asks him eventually to do occasional home redecorating. 

One of Frank’s ins is his fluency in Italian, which he gained from his wartime service in Europe swabbing up Mussolini’s tattered army. It’s also there that he became a stone cold killer. But for the most part, Frank’s a warm, avuncular fellow. The first time – even after we know he’s a trigger man – we become aware of Frank’s monstrous capacity to inflict pain comes when he hears his adolescent daughter has been physically scolded by a butcher. Frank marches down the street with daughter in tow, tosses the butcher through a glass pane with the same vigor he lobs a side of loin off his refrigerator truck, and stomps the meat dealer’s hand against a curb with a steel-toed shoe. For good measure, he kicks the object of ire in every soft spot from head to toe. Talk about an indelible life lesson for a little one. 

We’re far into the film when we meet Hoffa, who through Russell requests Frank’s expertise to shake down other unions infringing on his turf in Chicago. Instead of pushing cabs and trucks into the Mississippi River, which appears to be arduous work, Frank suggests firebombing en masse. Hoffa’s so impressed with this stroke of ingenious efficiency he has Frank stay in his hotel suite with him (okay, Frank was supposed to be a ghost, so no hotel registry) and the two have late-night pajama parties talking about loyalty, sincerity and other higher facets of underworld society. The mob adores Hoffa for the massive union pension fund, and the loans they can take from it to finance casinos. 

Pacino’s Hoffa is wildly emotional. Question his authority and you’ll become something like Twitter chum for our current president – he’s that knee-jerk, and Pacino cranks it up a notch or two (think “Scent of a Woman,” hoo-ah!). Speaking of the White House: As the film has it, the mob is instrumental in getting JFK elected because they want back in to Cuba and help set up the Bay of Pigs; in one scene, Frank delivers a tractor-trailer truck full of arms to one Howard Hunt in a Florida parking lot to better arm the participants. Even when the operation goes sideways, the mob holds its arms around Kennedy. Hoffa, on the other hand, is dogged by baby brother and attorney general Bobby and hauled onto Capitol Hill to testify. Later he’s busted on fraud and has to go to “school” for a few years, losing control of the union. When he gets out and wants it back, the mob isn’t so interested, as his replacement is loose and liberal with the union’s purse strings. Old friendships based on palm greasing dim quickly and Hoffa dials up the bluster, leaving Frank in the middle to be lobbed back and forth spouting witty mob nothings that mean everything such as “It is what it is” and “They’re more than a little concerned.” Hoffa, of course, doesn’t listen and slides $500,000 Nixon’s way. 

De Niro is aged digitally to and fro for the part. The older works seamlessly, but the young has its limitations; when Frank beats the bejesus out of that butcher, the raven-haired De Niro moves like a tired old boxer wrestling through a spasm of sciatica – a minor nit, but noticeable. Much is asked of Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, and he delivers. It’s not a gut punch like the fiery incarnations he made so indelible in “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980), but something more mature and contemplative, like the mob frontman he played in “Casino” (1995) or the cagey mercenary in John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” (1998). 

Because of the film’s structure and form, comparisons to “Goodfellas” (1990) and Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) are not only inevitable, but deserved. It’s hard to rank “The Irishman” in the Scorsese pantheon, but it’s up there. Of his more recent works, “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) registered a bravura take on a tired genre, and folks always tend to forget the quiet, immersive charm of “The Age of Innocence” (1993). Those films, along with “Goodfellas,” “Taxi Driver,” Raging Bull” and this crown the top tier. That doesn’t leave too much below. Sure, “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999) struggled to find its feet and made you wonder for a moment if the man weren’t losing his touch; but of course back near the top there’s his seminal crime drama, “Mean Streets” (1973), which started it all. I’ve always been wildly partial to “After Hours” (1985) due to its free-form friskiness and splatters of female empowerment – it’s both dark and liberating – and I haven’t even mentioned “The King of Comedy” (1982); the Tom Cruise movie that won Paul Newman an Oscar; or that Boston movie that won best picture. When you step back and look at Scorsese’s career over the years and his versatility, it’s more than just impressive, it’s daunting – enough that I think it affords him the deference to take a shot at Marvel. 

The one snag with “The Irishman” was how human and accessible Frank’s prolific killer came off. Part of that was the palpable loneliness of a toothless old lion pining for atonement and a reconnection with his estranged daughter and, of course, De Niro deepening it all with his naturally contemplative soulfulness. Still it gave me pause, making me think back to the days Whitey Bulger was played up in the media and on the streets as something of a Robin Hood, until the FBI corruption scandal broke and he instantly became the face of all that was amoral and evil. That Boston film, “The Departed” (2006), played with the persona of Whitey, with Jack Nicholson (who played Hoffa in Danny DeVito’s 1992 take, “Hoffa”) painting him as, well, Jack Nicholson (i.e., not very Boston or Bulger-esque). In the film, immorality and disregard for human life are summarily atoned. Watching “The Irishman,” while I rooted for Frank, I thought, what if in real life he was nothing but the aloof, self-aggrandizing killer Whitey was? It’s a haunting thing that hits you afterward and doesn’t let go. In “Goodfellas” there was an earnest ownership of complicity, something that’s strangely absent in “The Irishman.” The moments in the company of a priest toward the end fail to strike a moral chord one way or the other. Still, the whole saga – an American history lesson told wittily through the eyes of an amiable hitman strolling in the shadows of icons – grips and holds with fervor and sustained passion. Like the resolution of Hoffa’s demise that Zaillian and Scorsese settle on, there’s plenty of other theories out there that add up convincingly as well, each a different rendering of the facts, twisted and pulled into lore.


Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.

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