When Martin Scorsese, one of the world's most skillful and respected directors, reunited with two-time Oscar-winner Robert De Niro in GoodFellas, the result was one of the most powerful films of the year.
Based on the true-life best seller Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi and backed by a dynamic pop/rock oldies soundtrack, critics and filmgoers alike declared GoodFellas great. It was named 1990's best film by the New York, Los Angeles and National Society of Film Critics. And it earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Robert De Niro received wide recognition for his performance as veteran criminal Jimmy "The Gent" Conway. And as the volatile Tommy DeVito, Joe Pesci walked off with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Academy Award nominee Lorraine Bracco, Ray Liotta and Paul Sorvino also turned in electrifying performances. You have to see it to believe it - then watch it again. GoodFellas explores the criminal life like no other movie.
Try as I may, I just cannot get into mob movies. I understand and appreciate that films about organized crime rank as some of the most acclaimed in cinema -- 'The Godfather' trilogy, 'Casino,' 'Donnie Brasco' and of course 'GoodFellas' all come to mind -- but I just can't fully separate the subject matter from the artistry behind it. Mob movies are the equivalent of boxing to me -- why would I want to watch a bunch of people beating the shit out of each other, under the guise of perverted codes of "honor," "loyalty," and "family"?
So it is something of a high compliment for me to say that, despite my abhorrence of the mob genre, 'GoodFellas' is a film I can not only bear watching, but also greatly admire. Though I'd probably rank 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' a bit higher on my list of Martin Scorsese's all-time best works (and boy is it tough to pick from such a formidable oeuvre), 'GoodFellas' is certainly one of the director's finest -- a fiery, passionate, vivid depiction of organized crime, both unflinching in its realism and epic in its telling.
Based on the true story of Henry Hill, who lived "the life" since childhood only to turn informant in one of the biggest mob stings in government history, 'GoodFellas' traces the lives of three pivotal figures in the 1960s and '70s organized crime scene in New York. Ray Liotta plays Hill, a local boy turned gangster in a neighborhood full of the roughest and the toughest. The second point of the triangle is Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a born gangster as lethal as he is loyal, and who will eventually become Henry's best friend and confidant. Third is Hill's de facto mentor, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), who stages some of biggest hijacks and heists the mob has ever seen. Hill will eventually scale the heights of organized crime and attain the life of luxury and respect he always dreamed of. But his American Dream must inevitably come to a bloody end, with Hill eventually turning traitor in an effort to both save his family and find redemption.
What elevates 'GoodFellas' to the level of a humane, innately moral picture is that Scorsese straddles the very difficult line between depicting the allure and vanity of the mob lifestyle without worshipping it. Certainly, the opening passages of 'GoodFellas' make the mob look glamorous -- after all, we are watching the story through the young Hill's eyes. But as his world and life spiral downward into an excess of money, drugs and violence, Scorsese deconstructs not just Hill's idealization of the life he always wanted but also our culture's own repulsion/attraction towards the mob's moral code. One need only compare 'GoodFellas' to a crass exercise like Brian De Palma's 'Scarface,' which traffics in over-the-top sadism and excess merely for camp effect, to see that Scorsese is not so much staging just another mob movie in 'GoodFellas' as he is a mythic meditation on the American Dream gone awry.
'GoodFellas' would also be a terrific film judged soley by its performances. Liotta, De Niro and Pesce (who took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts) deliver career-best portrayals, as do Lorraine Bracco as Hill's long-suffering wife, and Paul Sorvino as Paul Cicero, who Hill must eventually betray on his way up (and down) the mob hierarchy.
'GoodFellas' in some ways brings Scorsese full circle to his '70s roots, and films as disparate as 'Mean Streets,' 'Taxi Driver' and 'New York, New York.' The city (as a state of mind, not a geographical location) infuses every frame of most of Scorsese's films, but 'GoodFellas' feels like a completion, weaving together many of the themes he has explored in his past work (loyalty, honor, family, crime, redemption, Catholicism) in a way that's both epic in scope yet incredibly personal and intimate. Which makes it impossible not to see Scorsese's own reflection in the young Hill. Even if they took very different paths in life, they ultimately come to the same conclusion.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
For this 20th Anniversary Edition of 'Goodfellas', Warner Home Video re-releases the same exact 25GB Blu-ray disc from the first year of the format's launch. The only difference is that they've repackaged Martin Scorsese's seminal crime drama in a highly attractive Two-Disc DigiBook, which includes a 32-page collection of short essays, color pictures, and bios on cast and director. While the first disc contains the film and supplements, the second disc comes with a documentary and a small collection of cartoons.
'Goodfellas' first made its transition to high definition during the early days of the format wars. And at that time, the gangster flick made an okay impression amongst those looking to buy into the new technology. Side-to-side comparisons reveal no discernible difference between this new edition and the two previous releases on Blu-ray and HD DVD. In fact, it appears to be the exact same disc. This probably wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't for the fact that after thousands of hours of HD viewing, this 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1) simply doesn't come close to some of the best catalog titles available. Unless Warner is willing to fork out the money for a serious restoration of the original negative, I doubt this modern classic will ever look any better than this.
On the bright side, the picture quality here is a remarkable improvement when compared to the two-disc special edition DVD. Contrast and brightness levels are balanced pretty well though not great, and the transfer possesses good visibility of the finer objects in the background. When we enter Henry's second house after being released from jail, viewers can clearly make out the garish and tacky wallpaper designs and all the flashy, dated furniture. The image as a whole is much sharper and reveals good texture in a variety of clothing. Especially in close-ups, the camera exposes many wrinkles and defects in the faces of actors. Colors receive the biggest upgrade with primaries looking brighter and bolder than ever while secondary hues are rendered nicely.
Regrettably, the video arrives with more misses than hits. There are several instances of whites coming off a bit too strong and even bloom in some scenes. Blacks are generally deep and accurate, but there are more times when they lose some of their luster and appear either flat or almost dark gray. Shadow delineation also holds up well for the most part, at times even impressively so, but again, there are many sequences when low-lit interiors are poorly resolved, almost cloudy. Several scenes are softer than the rest of the picture, colors dull, and facial complexions unexpectedly appear pale and sickly. And this isn't counting those moments when Ray Liotta is supposed to look that way. Finally, there is one scene (01:16:43) when a line running down the screen suddenly shows up.
Although this is the best 'Goodfellas' has ever looked, the picture quality just can't compete with the studio's own better catalog releases.
Three years since the original release of 'Goodfellas', and for some strange reason, Warner Brothers has decided to simply port over the same Dolby Digital soundtrack as before. Considering this is supposed to be the Anniversary Edition - and a double dip for most fans I'm sure - it would have been nice for this crime epic to at least receive the hi-rez audio treatment.
No matter, the complaints of many are likely to fall on deaf ears anyhow. But much like the video, this lossy track will never hold a light to some of the best lossless stereo presentations around. On its own, the sound design is not a complete waste, displaying the occasional splash of sound in the background to enhance the soundfield. While the musical score and period songs make better use of the surround speakers, rear activity is mostly non-existent, and discrete effects are of no concern for this drama. Low bass is surprisingly hefty and adds good weight to action sequences. The front-heavy mix provides a strong dynamic range, clean channel separation, and enjoyable imaging to engage viewers. Though dialogue reproduction is intelligible and precise, there are a few times when whispers are a bit difficult to make out. All in all, this is not a bad track.
The Anniversary Edition of 'Goodfellas' comes loaded with the same special features found on both the Blu-ray and HD DVD releases, which are themselves taken from the standard definition Two-Disc Special Edition released in 2004.
'Goodfellas' is arguably Martin Scorsese's most influential film and regarded by many as his masterpiece. Whatever the sentiments, there is no denying this is one of the most brutal, unabashed, and raw examinations of the gangster lifestyle, and it's all thanks to the fact that it is based on the real life of Henry Hill and his connections to the Lucchese family. For this 20th Anniversary Edition of the film, Warner Home Video repackages the same Blu-ray disc in a Two-Disc DigiBook, with the same A/V presentation and supplements, but also includes a bonus DVD that features a documentary and a small collection of cartoons. For those who have been waiting to buy this modern classic, this is a worthy and attractive purchase. Others will be hard-pressed to see the benefit of a second purchase. Nonetheless, the film all by itself is always worthy of a high recommendation.