Legendary director Martin Scorsese returns to the gangster milieu for one last epic hurrah with The Irishman, an impeccably crafted, oh-so-sprawling tale of loyalty, corruption, and betrayal that charts the rise and fall of a mafia hitman who's inexorably tied to a ruthless crime czar and corrupt Teamsters honcho Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci headline a top-notch cast, but the real virtuoso performance comes from one of cinema's iconic masters, who once again creates movie magic like only he can. A beautiful transfer, excellent Dolby Atmos audio, and healthy array of supplements distinguish Criterion's Blu-ray presentation, which is well worth owning until a 4K UHD release comes along. Highly Recommended.
No one depicts the violent, vicious, and labyrinthian world of organized crime with more precision and gusto than Martin Scorsese. Operatic in scope and brimming with beauty despite the grisly subject matter, his gritty portraits of gangsters and their various milieus remain undisputed masterworks that continually dazzle the senses no matter how many times we've seen them. Though only four of Scorsese's 60-odd films deal specifically with the Italian mafia, the legendary director forever will be known as the genre's most passionate and lyrical chronicler.
First up was Mean Streets in 1973, followed by GoodFellas in 1990 and 1995's Casino. Then came an almost quarter-century drought before Scorsese produced what likely will stand as his final, longest, and most poetic mob movie, 2019's The Irishman. Like an aging kingpin and the elderly hitman who's the central figure of this often spellbinding three-and-a-half-hour epic, Scorsese speaks softly but carries a big directorial stick. Style abounds (it wouldn't be a Scorsese picture without it), but the largely understated presentation reflects the attitude of a confident, serene craftsman who no longer feels compelled to flex his creative muscles to gain attention and win elusive Oscars. Quiet elegance prevails, yet moments of visceral, unapologetic brutality disrupt the calm and succinctly capsulize the dog-eat-dog world in which we live.
Leading up to its release, many hyped The Irishman as both Scorsese's crowning achievement and the artistic culmination of a 50-year career that - like the Energizer Bunny - shows no sign of winding down. (Personally, I hope Scorsese, who just turned 78 last week, keeps going and going and going for at least another decade.) While the film does contain all the elements we've come to expect from Scorsese's gangster movies - narration, flashbacks, long tracking shots, freeze-frames, and an impeccable sense of period detail - it falls just short of masterpiece status.
Make no mistake, The Irishman is a true work of art, but its languorous pacing and talky script produce some draggy stretches and its excessive length ultimately dulls the story's power. (The last 30 minutes could have been significantly condensed without harming the narrative or disrupting the mood.) Much like running a marathon, watching the film is an endurance test, but if you can make it to the finish line, The Irishman breeds not only immense satisfaction, but also a deep appreciation for the artistry on display and boundless admiration for the man who so brilliantly conceived and executed this ambitious and frequently fascinating movie.
In the same vein as GoodFellas and Casino, The Irishman tells a big, multi-decade tale, but Scorsese paints his canvas with more measured brushstrokes and tamps down the flourishes. The result is a more sedate, but no less gripping account of the machinations, codes, loyalties, and power struggles that define the mob and its tangled relationship with both the Teamsters Union and its corrupt, cocky, blustery leader, Jimmy Hoffa.
Hoffa (Al Pacino) looms large in The Irishman, but he's not the title character. That honor belongs to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver turned mafia hitman who - if you believe the film - was Hoffa's most trusted friend, advisor, and dutiful servant...until he bumped off Hoffa at the behest of Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in 1975. The Irishman is based on the aged Sheeran's account of the killing and memories of his close relationships with Hoffa and Bufalino, but who knows how much of it is really true. Speculation has swirled about Hoffa's disappearance for decades (his body has never been found), and many of the details in Sheeran's story have been disputed. Nevertheless, his tale - in Scorsese's hands - makes a damn good movie.
Like a richly textured novel, the story gradually and methodically unfolds, and features a gallery of colorful characters who are referred to by various names, nicknames, and other identifying monikers that make it difficult to keep everyone straight. (Next time I watch the film, I'll make myself a cheat sheet.) The literate script by Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for Schindler's List and received three other nominations, including one for Scorsese's Gangs of New York, focuses intently on character, and Scorsese's leisurely approach allows us to really get under the skins of the three principals. Amid all the character beats, cold-blooded violence, restaurant and nightclub tête-à-têtes, and prison scenes, Scorsese weaves plenty of history into the film - the Kennedys and Watergate figure prominently and provide time stamps for the drama - and peppers the action with inside info and mafia trivia. (Frank's tutorial on how to pick the proper gun for a hit is especially enlightening.)
And then there are the de-aging effects. Much has been written about the controversial choice to use the digital technique to allow De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci to portray younger versions of their characters and thus appear continually throughout the film. Though the technology seamlessly shaves years off the actors, its implementation occasionally takes us out of the story as we marvel at the results and look for betraying chinks in the armor. (I couldn't final any.) Pacino and Pesci fare the best because Hoffa and Bufalino are well into middle age when we meet them. Sheeran, though, is supposed to be just 35 in his earliest scenes (although the film never gets that specific), and De Niro doesn't look anywhere near that young.
His performance, though, is first-rate. In a largely reactive role, De Niro soberly plays the stoic Sheeran, who protects and obeys both Bufalino and Hoffa until he's ordered to do otherwise. His dirty deeds and steadfast sense of duty alienate him from his family, most notably his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), and De Niro subtly conveys the weight of his stressful, nefarious burdens. Not many actors can carry a 209-minute movie, but De Niro proves he's more than up to such a Herculean task. He's the glue that holds The Irishman together, and he never loses his grip.
Amazingly, the 78-year-old Pacino had never before appeared in a Scorsese picture, and his work here makes us wish he had. Though at times he chews the scenery like a big juicy cigar, Pacino remains refreshingly in check most of the time, filing a finely tuned portrayal of a larger-than-life figure.
On the flip side, Pesci plays a diminutive man who tries to remain invisible, and he easily steals the film with an understated, wonderfully nuanced, utterly revelatory performance that's the antithesis of his loudmouth, fast-talking, over-the-top work in both GoodFellas and Casino. Reportedly, Pesci turned down the part of Russell Bufalino more than 50 times before Scorsese and De Niro finally coaxed him out of retirement. He never raises his voice, recites his lines with uncharacteristic deliberation, and proves silence is golden with an array of vivid reaction shots that speak volumes about Bufalino's ruthless nature and grasping, manipulative personality. It's a riveting turn that engenders renewed respect for the venerable Pesci and justly earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. (Pacino got one, too, by the way.)
In all, The Irishman nabbed 10 Oscar nods, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design, Film Editing, and Visual Effects, but sadly didn't take home any awards. (Interestingly, Gangs of New York also got 10 nominations and also won zero Oscars.) The lack of laurels, though, doesn't diminish the film's artistry. Rodrigo Prieto's gorgeous photography adopts a different style to reflect each historical period, while Scorsese's maniacal attention to the smallest details across the entire production spectrum lends The Irishman an authentic feel that helps us get lost in this murky, endlessly fascinating world of violence, corruption, greed, ego, and betrayal. Excellent supporting turns from Harvey Keitel (appearing in his first Scorsese film since 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ), Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Paquin (who's mute for most of the film), Stephen Graham, and Stephanie Kurtzuba, among many others, lend the movie additional snap, crackle, and pop.
The Irishman isn't just a historical epic and the climactic chapter in Scorsese's gangster quartet, it's also a throwback to classic moviemaking and a celebration of meticulous craftsmanship. Scorsese has always embraced and championed modern technology, but he's never abandoned his roots and never forsaken the core principles of traditional cinema that the great directors and auteurs who came before him created and plied. It's those foundations and that commitment that make Scorsese's movies - and The Irishman in particular - so special.
The Irishman isn't Scorsese's best film, but it's a film that perfectly sums up the man, his style, and what he means to the motion picture industry. It's also a movie that, in its purest sense, reminds us what movies are all about. No one except Scorsese makes 'em like this anymore, and that's a crying shame.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Irishman arrives on Blu-ray handsomely packaged in a mate-finished slipcase that contains a fold-out, three-panel cardboard digipak with individual panel illustrations of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci. A 24-page booklet featuring an essay by author Geoffrey O'Brien, color scene stills and production photos, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside, along with two Blu-ray discs, one of which houses the film and one of which stores the supplements. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is Dolby Atmos. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The Irishman premiered on Netflix a year ago in 4K Dolby Vision, and most home video enthusiasts (count me among them) hoped a 4K UHD disc would be part of the package when the film debuted on physical media. Sadly, it's not. Criterion - much to the dismay and disappointment of many film fans - has yet to embrace 4K UHD, but the company has treated Scorsese's epic with the utmost care, producing a top-notch, often breathtaking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that definitely rivals the 4K Dolby Vision stream. According to the liner notes, "This digital master, with color grading approved by director Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, was created in 4K resolution using a combination of digital-camera footage and the 35 mm original camera negative. Digital cameras were employed to facilitate the scenes requiring de-aging visual effects. Different Look Up Tables (LUTs) were applied to both the scanned film negative and the digital footage to emulate old still-photography emulsions such as Kodachrome and Ektachrome, as well as the ENR processing technique."
Gloriously film-like and bursting with exceptional clarity and contrast, The Irishman looks fantastic on Blu-ray. The transfer faithfully honors the shifting photographic textures employed to evoke the various time periods, and just a hint of grain lends the image a nostalgic richness. The vivid color palette favors primaries and pastels alike, with lush reds, verdant greens, crystal blues, bright pinks, and sunny oranges perking up the picture. Blacks are rich and inky, crisp whites resist blooming, flesh tones remain natural and stable throughout, and excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Though many viewers might not like the widespread use of de-aging effects, they're seamlessly woven into the film's fabric and never distract from a visual standpoint.
Details are often astounding. The speckled grit of asphalt, slick contours of Frank's leather jacket, bits of dirt on the car windshield, soggy flakes in a cereal bowl, gleaming automobile chrome, mirror-like reflections, and costume and upholstery textures all jump off the screen. Yes, the 4K Dolby Vision Netflix image is a tad sharper overall, but never once as I watched this Blu-ray rendering did I feel cheated by the presentation. Sometimes standard Blu-ray looks pale, flat, and dull when compared to its 4K counterpart, but not so here. Would a 4K UHD Dolby Vision disc outclass this Criterion transfer and expose more pronounced differences? Most likely. But until we get that release - and who knows when that will be - this Blu-ray more than suffices. It's a beautiful rendition of a beautiful film.
I'm glad to have a physical copy of The Irishman to add to my Scorsese disc collection, and if given the choice between firing up Netflix and popping in this Criterion disc to watch The Irishman in the future, I will definitely opt for the Criterion disc. The minimal differences in picture quality and addition of a Dolby Atmos track (see below) make me quite content to cozy up to this superior release.
The Netflix stream of The Irishman features a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but this Criterion edition ups the ante a bit by including the film's original Dolby Atmos track, which, according to the liner notes, was remastered from the digital master audio files. The result is a very satisfying transfer that brims with nuance and features startling bursts of sonic power. Though I couldn't detect any distinct overhead effects, there's plenty of subtle surround activity and some terrific instances of stereo separation across the front channels. Little details often make the biggest impressions - the opening of a cigarette case, the ignition of a lighter, the popping of a switchblade, bursting flashbulbs - but sonic accents like gunfire and explosions grab attention, too.
Crowd noise nicely bleeds into the rear speakers to create an enveloping effect, and both Robbie Robertson's subdued, haunting music score and all the popular songs Scorsese employs do the same. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion, and solid bass frequencies add essential weight when necessary. All the dialogue is clear, well prioritized, and easy to understand, even when mumbled, and no surface noise creeps into the mix. Though The Irishman audio track won't tax your system, it supplies marvelous atmosphere and enhances this movie's quiet power and nostalgic mood.
A healthy and absorbing supplemental package resides on Disc Two and greatly enhances this Criterion release.
Featurette: "Making The Irishman" (HD, 36 minutes) - Scorsese talks about the film's themes, working with De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, the de-aging process, and the movie's color palette, among other topics, in this slick, absorbing piece. Film clips and behind-the-scenes footage abound, and many members of the cast and crew, including De Niro, Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, author Charles Brandt, casting director Ellen Lewis, producer Irwin Winkler, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, discuss their characters, praise Scorsese, and examine the film's look, costumes, production design, and locations.
"Table for Four: Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci" (HD, 19 minutes) - This 2019 roundtable discussion unites the four legends, who reminisce about how they met and chat about the genesis of The Irishman, the film's length, tone, and characters, the joys of working together, and the movie's unique technical challenges. Terrific rapport and some great anecdotes distinguish this jovial yet substantive dialogue.
Video Essay: "Gangsters' Requiem" (HD, 21 minutes) - Film critic Farran Smith Nehme connects The Irishman to Scorsese's personal experience and his other legendary gangster pictures while examining the director's style, the relationships between the characters, and the movie's underlying themes. Smith dissects several scenes and examines many of the subtle touches that make The Irishman such a textured, nuanced film.
"Anatomy of a Scene" (HD, 5 minutes) - Scorsese comments about the structure, elements, tone, and subtext of a pivotal sequence in The Irishman for this installment of a popular feature that regularly appears in the The New York Times.
Featurette: "The Evolution of Digital De-Aging as Seen in The Irishman" (HD, 13 minutes) - This promotional Netflix piece examines the revolutionary and controversial de-aging process that's such a major part of The Irishman. Visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman and a host of technical craftsmen from Industrial Light & Magic outline the development, execution, and philosophy of this fascinating technique. Split-screen shots show the striking transformations of the actors and myriad computer images provide glimpses of the meticulous methodology used to create this latest form of movie magic.
Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa (SD, 23 minutes) - Individual archival interviews with Sheeran (interviewed by author Charles Brandt in 1999) and Hoffa (interviewed by legendary journalist David Brinkley for the documentary Inside Jimmy Hoffa) provide an intimate look at these two colorful figures. Sheeran shares details about the life of a hitman and the profession's dos and don'ts, while Hoffa describes himself as an "average, ordinary human being," classifies life as "a jungle," states his definition of ethics, and airs his beefs with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Theatrical Trailer and Teaser (HD, 4 minutes) - The film's original preview and a teaser that's really more of a trailer complete the extras package.
The Irishman may not be Scorsese's masterpiece, but it's surely his magnum opus. The culmination of a legendary career and (most likely) the final chapter in the legendary director's gangster canon, this epic chronicle of the close relationship between teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, his loyal henchman Frank Sheeran, and mafia kingpin Russell Bufalino stands as an impeccably crafted, visually stunning, and often riveting motion picture. Yep, it's long, it drags in spots, and there's the whole de-aging thing, but a glorious 1080p transfer that rivals the Netflix 4K stream, excellent Dolby Atmos audio, and a nice array of extras make this Criterion Blu-ray edition well worth owning until we get a 4K UHD release. Highly Recommended.