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 stupid 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.
My first experience seeing 'GoodFellas' was on DVD back in the late '90s, when Warner Home Video first released the film as an antiquated "flipper" disc. The transfer was quite poor, marred by heavy grain, an overly dark appearance and muddy colors. Granted, it was still probably better than VHS tape, but it was far from a shining example of the DVD format. So when I first reviewed the HD DVD version of 'GoodFellas' a few months back, I wasn't sure if I should expect much. Especially since it seemed, on the surface, to be a strange choice to show off a new high-def next-gen format. But boy, was that disc a near-revelation. That exhilaration continues on Blu-ray, with another Warner HD DVD-to-Blu-ray Xerox that ports over the same 1080p/VC-1 encode.
Framed 1.78:1 widescreen, which is slightly opened up from the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film's theatrical presentation, the presentation is very film-like. There is a bit of film grain, usually only noticeable in the darkest scenes. Colors are nicely saturated; Scorsese sometimes employs a slight filter effect, and an intense use of dark colors (burgundy, brown, etc.) which gives some scenes a slightly reddish tinge, but it appears natural and clean throughout. I was also impressed with the sense of depth and clarity to the transfer -- 'GoodFellas' looks like a new movie, not one that's now over fifteen years old. Detail is top-notch, with subtle skin and fabric textures apparent, and a real sense of three-dimensionality to the picture. Blacks are rich and deep, with contrast excellent.
'GoodFellas' hits Blu-ray in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, encoded at the same 640kpbs bitrate as the Dolby Digital-Plus track on the HD DVD version. Unfortunately, the film's somewhat restrained sound design doesn't gain much in the transition to high-def. Though a strong presentation appropriate to the material, there is just not enough going on sonically to really offer much of a noticeable improvement over the standard-def DVD release.
On its own terms, this is still a solid mix. I liked Scorsese's sometimes aggressive use of surrounds in some scenes, and his effective use of period songs on the soundtrack (largely in the club scenes) which can dazzle. Bass is also considerably deep on the loud sounds, such as the scene when Hill firebombs a group of cars early on in the film. Dynamic range is also full with very natural sounding range from high to low. Bass is perfectly fine. Perhaps most importantly, dialogue reproduction is excellent, with not even the thickest of New York accents lost in the mix.
Consistent with the HD DVD release, Warner carries over all the extras to the Blu-ray version, which is a BD-50 dual-layer disc no less. So let's be glad Warner waited to bring this one out, because though there's nothing new here for fans who already own the standard-def release, this is still a pretty strong batch of extras.
First up are two of the better commentaries I've heard. Track one consists of Scorsese, cast members Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino and Frank Vincent, screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Of course, they weren't all recorded together (what a pile-up that would have been), but the choice editing of all their comments is well thought-out, even if the sheer number of participants means no one really gets to speak for a total of more than ten or fifteen minutes. But what great stuff -- just about every aspect of the production is covered, and like all great commentary tracks, this one tells its own story. No joke -- it is often as gripping as the film, despite the occasional dull spot (aided by the fact that I tend to be more interested in the actors than the technical side of things). A must-listen nevertheless.
Equally as fascinating is the second commentary, dubbed "The Crook and The Cop." Henry Hill and FBI agent Edward McDonald -- the man who put him in witness protection -- talk almost non-stop. However much I may despise what the guy did and stood for (and, quite frankly, in some ways still does) Hill is incredibly engaging, even hilarious. If nothing else, he's a great salesman for his own life, comparing every last detail of the movie to the real story. He also overshadows McDonald, who pretty much acts as interviewer. But that's okay -- this is Hill's world, and we're just visiting.
Unfortunately, after the great commentaries, the video-based featurettes pale in comparison. The 29-minute "Getting Made" feels redundant with the cast commentary, featuring new interviews with Liotta and Bracco, but old EPK snippets from Scorsese, De Niro and Pesce. This is not a bad "digest version" of the commentary, but a film this visually rich and culturally significant just deserves more than this.
Also included is the 8-minute "Workaday Gangster," which features a new interview with Hill on life as a mobster, but again there is not much here that isn't in the commentary. The 13-minute "GoodFellas Legacy" is pretty self-congratulatory, featuring new interviews with such modern filmmakers as Richard Linklater, Jon Favreau and Antoine Fuqua, all praising the film. Unfortunately, no one really delves that deeply into the movie, so it doesn't illuminate much.
Rounding out the extras is the "Paper is Cheaper Than Film" storyboard-to-film comparison, which features Scorsese's pencil-drawings of many of the key scenes in the film. I'm not a real big fan of this stuff, but film students should love it. Warner has also included the film's original theatrical trailer in 1.78:1 widescreen and encoded at 1080p (the rest of the video-based supplements are all 480i only).
The biggest compliment I can pay 'GoodFellas' is that I usually hate mob movies but I can do nothing but praise this film. This is one of Scorsese's career achievements, a perfectly realized American tragedy of grand ambition and scope that hits every mark just right. This Blu-ray release is strong in every regard, from the sharp transfer and soundtrack to a healthy assortment of extras. I don't know if the video quality alone makes it worth an upgrade over the standard-def DVD release, but it is great to have the whole package on one disc and looking better than ever before. And if you don't already own 'GoodFellas' on disc, this is definitely a no-brainer.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.