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Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in The Irishman. The film marks only the third time that De Niro and Pacino have ever shared the screen.

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  • The Irishman
  • Directed by: Martin Scorsese
  • Written by: Steven Zaillian
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino
  • Classification: R; 210 minutes

rating

It is unexpectedly and entirely delightful that so much of 2019 has revolved around Martin Scorsese, age 76. In one corner, there is Martin Scorsese, Cinema Champion, raging against the emptiness of the comic-book movie and doing so with the determination and vigour and to-hell-with-all-of-you fire of an artist who knows he is absolutely right. In another corner there is Martin Scorsese, Medium Innovator, pushing the digital limits of what the screen is capable of containing, and forcing audiences to ask themselves if this is the cinematic future we desire. And in another corner, there is Martin Scorsese, Industry Disruptor, partnering up with Netflix, Hollywood’s greatest modern foe, in half a bid to change the way movies are made, half a bid to burn easy cash in order to achieve what was previously an impossible-to-realize vision.

Reviews of films opening this week: Martin Scorsese’s gift The Irishman, and the familiar and formulaic holiday tale Last Christmas

For so much of this very long year, we have spent time talking about what Scorsese says, what he thinks and how those cinematic principles might, and should, ricochet across the zeitgeist. We’ve drawn battle lines and allegiances, we’ve hardened our artistic philosophies and we’ve tied ourselves into all manner of unnecessary cultural knots. But now, with the long-awaited release of The Irishman, we finally get the opportunity to discuss what Scorsese has actually done. And it is glorious.

All of this should have been anticipated. Without argument, Scorsese is one of our greatest working filmmakers, and has spent the past decade not only reaffirming this thesis through his own genre-resistant work (including this past spring’s wiggly Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese), but by also lending his weight to the schemes of others (in 2019 alone, he produced Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, both all-timers). If there is still any doubt as to Scorsese’s artistry, The Irishman will put skeptics to bed. Or six feet under.

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Weaving together several different timelines, The Irishman follows the misdeeds of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a real-life hit man for the Philadelphia mob who first cozies up to the head of the Bufalino crime family (Joe Pesci), and eventually becomes an enforcer for Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

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Partly a continuation of the career-long conversation he’s been having with audiences about the evil that men do, and partly a reflection on regret – life’s most profound inevitability – The Irishman is the film that Scorsese has been working his whole life toward. Much like the director’s most popular work, this is a crime film, thrilling and visceral. But The Irishman represents something deeper, too. It’s as much a companion piece to the propulsive, addictive violence of Goodfellas and Casino as it is to the meditative lacerations of Silence, the punishing doubts of The Last Temptation of Christ and the spiritual suffering of The Age of Innocence.

Weaving together several different timelines – but never enough that the narrative is confusing to follow – The Irishman follows the misdeeds of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a real-life hit man for the Philadelphia mob who first cozies up to the head of the Bufalino crime family (Joe Pesci), and eventually becomes an enforcer for Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As the story crosses decades, Scorsese and his screenwriter Steve Zaillian use Sheeran as a narrative means of dipping in and out of the East Coast underworld, painting as expansive and disturbing a portrait of American avarice as has ever been produced.

And then comes The Irishman’s final half-hour, when Scorsese and De Niro, his long-time and most trusted collaborator, engage in a dialogue not only with immorality, but with cinema’s eternal appetite for it. It is stirring and daring work that will be remembered long after, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (sorry, Groot).

With the exception of Sheeran’s morally disgusted daughter Peggy, The Irishman is consumed with damning its characters: horrible men who do horrible things for the advancement of no one but themselves.

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While every performance in The Irishman is exceptional, it is amusing that De Niro, ostensibly the title character, gets crowded out by nearly everyone else – Pacino, for starters. The Irishman marks only the third time De Niro and Pacino, the two heavyweights of American acting, have ever shared the screen, and Scorsese exploits the occasion for all it’s worth. Taking a match to the deliberately muted combustion of Michael Mann’s coffee-shop meetup in 1995′s Heat, The Irishman slams the two performers up against one another like it’s the most naturally incendiary pairing in the world. Which it is. (I believe that we, as a human race, have collectively decided to never speak about De Niro and Pacino’s other team-up, 2008′s Righteous Kill.)

As Sheeran, De Niro is all tightly coiled nerves and brutal protectiveness – a snake waiting for his prey to make one wrong move. As Hoffa, Pacino is a spittle-spewing beast, stomping over everything and everyone to get his way, the volume turned as high as the creature can muster. It is a glorious pairing, even if the camera clearly lusts for Pacino more, especially when the actor is slurping down ice cream (Hoffa devours enough onscreen sundaes that I was worried for Pacino’s blood-sugar levels) and dancing in and out of an Irish accent (one that coming from another performer’s mouth might sound sloppy, but here favours the impression of deliberate imprecision – of a man who can swing back and forth from folksy humbleness to brash theatrics whenever it suits his needs).

De Niro and Pacino are not exactly revelations here – we know the heights that each man can hit when given the opportunity and the discipline. The actual surprise should be reserved for Pesci, who works so delicately against the expectations Scorsese himself once helped engineer. Pesci’s Russell Bufalino is not the crazy clown of Goodfellas, nor the brash hothead of Casino. He’s not even the more sympathetic, but still aggressive, Judas of Raging Bull. Russell is an entirely new skin for Pesci to slip on, tightly pulled but still combustible. Pesci’s soft voice and immovable presence combine to create a force that never has to be reckoned with, because everyone already wisely assumes the chaos such a provocation might cause. It is a performance so good that it stings – maybe none of us, not even Scorsese, knew just what a gift Pesci is until this moment.

Joe Pesci, who plays Russell Bufalino, works so delicately against the expectations that Scorsese himself once helped engineer.

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If The Irishman was only a three-hander between De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, then that would be enough. But Scorsese fills his cast out with a staggering number of familiar faces, all doing excellent work in the margins. Harvey Keitel, looking as hair-trigger volatile as ever, gets a choice walk-on role as an old-school Philly mafioso. Meanwhile, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston, Domenick Lombardozzi and Ray Romano, all veterans from either one of Scorsese’s HBO series Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl, bounce off the walls, clearly having the time of their lives. (Yes, you read that right: Ray Romano, Master Thespian.)

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Perhaps the tidal wave of talent was made possible by the sheer amount of money Scorsese was able to wring out of Netflix (reportedly US$159-million, a staggering sum these days for a film not about a superhero). Either way, it is great fun to watch The Irishman and think of how much joy Scorsese must have had setting fire to so much of the streaming giant’s cash reserves. Midway through the film, Scorsese has Sheeran and his co-conspirators toss a dozen taxi cabs in a lake, a shot that must’ve cost at least a couple hundred thousand dollars. And then, because he seemingly decided that’s not enough onscreen destruction, Scorsese follows up the scene with Sheeran’s goons setting an entire fleet of cabs ablaze.

The money has been slightly less well-spent on the film’s much-discussed digital effects, which “de-age” performers so that De Niro and Pesci can play the same characters decades younger. A scene featuring De Niro as a twentysomething Sheeran in the Second World War is distressingly silly – his face waxy and creepy. Thankfully, that moment is a brief one, and the trick becomes more natural the longer the film goes on. Still, there is an aspect to the actors’ age-appropriate physicality that no amount of CGI can mask. Audiences, and Scorsese himself, know that the younger De Niro was powered by a manic and jittery onscreen electricity, leaping off the screen in Mean Streets. Here, there’s a pronounced ricketiness to the supposedly youthful version of Sheeran – an auto-tuned lumbering that should be a natural sprint.

For all the consternation about The Irishman’s length, the film truly breezes by.

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Speedier, though, is just how quickly The Irishman acts as a definitive closer to the perennial argument that Scorsese is somehow glamorizing the lives of criminals. With the exception of Sheeran’s morally disgusted daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin, who does a lot with how little the guy-heavy screenplay offers), The Irishman is consumed with damning its characters: horrible men who do horrible things for the advancement of no one but themselves. Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street each offered similar condemnations, but The Irishman delivers a more lasting, aching pain that should quash anyone’s fantasies of crime. But if anyone needs even further evidence, Scorsese provides it in a literal manner here, too: Every time Sheeran meets a new mafioso, Scorsese throws a few quick lines of text on the screen detailing their ultimate, and untimely, deaths – a sick joke for those who are sick jokes themselves.

The only challenge The Irishman presents, then, is convincing skeptics to sit down for its entire 210 minutes (or, you know, 28 minutes more than the infinitely soggier Avengers: Endgame). For all the consternation about The Irishman’s length, the film truly breezes by, its only mild narrative hiccup being a bit of unnecessary internecine mob rivalry involving (Crazy) Joe Gallo (a slice of history flicked at in Goodfellas). Yet, even this diversion is filmed so energetically, and cast so well thanks to Sebastian Maniscalco’s flip-the-bird energy as Gallo, that I am actually scrubbing this criticism from the official record. Which means that The Irishman is nearly perfect. Here is to 2019: the Year of Martin Scorsese. It was a long time coming.

The Irishman opens Nov. 8 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto; Nov. 15 in Vancouver, Ottawa, and Montreal; Nov. 22 in Calgary and Edmonton; and Nov. 27 on Netflix

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