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'The Irishman': A 'Goodfellas' for Grownups

Martin Scorsese reteams with De Niro, Pacino and Pesci for his most mature mob movie yet

Rating: R

Run time: 3 hours 30 minutes

Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel

Director: Martin Scorsese

En español | Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed) is the go-to guy for Mafia movies, but even he has never made anything like the immense, career-capstone epic The Irishman, based on the memoir of hit man Frank Sheeran, who claimed he killed mobster Crazy Joe Gallo at Umberto's Clam House in New York and Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (whose body was never found).

Despite some critics who cast doubt on Sheeran's veracity, The Irishman has a higher Rotten Tomatoes rating than Goodfellas, Casino and all three of The Godfather movies, with some of the same all-star cast.

But it has a whole different vibe — it's a Goodfellas for grownups, the reminiscences of Sheeran (Robert De Niro, 76) at 82. In his flashbacks, he and his associates — his mentor Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, 76) and mobbed-up union man Hoffa (Al Pacino, 79) — get digitally de-aged, an effective technique that, along with masterful set design, perfects the vivid illusion of time past and present flitting through the mind of a man looking back in search of the meaning of his wild life.

The tone is ruminative, the pace calm and deliberate, with intermittent eruptions of mayhem. Starting with a long tracking shot in Frank's nursing home, it's less exhilarating than Goodfellas, based on cocaine-addicted mobster Henry Hill's hellzapoppin’ life story, with its famous tracking shot of a restaurant full of madcap mafiosi with colorful names.

Frank's story is sadder, unflashy — it doesn't make you want to join the mob party. It makes mob life seem like Greek drama, a fate that inexorably, woefully unfolds until you wind up broke and alone with your memories. As Scorsese, 76, recently said, “When you get to my age, you get a little slower, a little more contemplative.”

Sheeran starts as a mildly crooked meat-truck driver who impresses Bufalino, who's not the jittery human time bomb Pesci played in Goodfellas, but a criminal as methodically thoughtful as a wise old turtle. Bufalino likes Sheeran's enterprising criminality and his past as a World War II GI who illegally shot POWs after making them dig their own graves. But he'd never have a man whacked before his time.

The Irishman has a quiet, tragic vision. Minor characters appear on-screen with text describing their comeuppances: “Shot four times in the face in his kitchen,” “Nail bomb under his porch.” But at the moment, they're workmen doing their jobs.

When Sheeran or his pals get JFK elected, then kill him, perpetrate the Bay of Pigs invasion with a future Watergate conspirator, or paint the wall with Hoffa's brains for crossing his mob cronies, it's just business as usual, not some big drama.

The everyday human drama is what matters and what makes this a flick whose length challenges your bladder without including a single boring or inauthentic moment. Sheeran means well, and he only wants to please taciturn, calculating Bufalino and volatile, loudmouth showboat Hoffa, whose body he guards until he's forced to fill it full of lead.

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He does what his lawyer, Bufalino's brother (Ray Romano, 61), says and defers to another top mobster (Harvey Keitel, 80). Unlike gleefully evil Henry Hill, Sheeran seems like a good fella who fell in with a bad crowd and wrestles with his conscience — especially when his daughter (Anna Paquin) shoots him a scathing look that shows she knows he knocked off Hoffa, whom she always loved.

Paquin won't win an award for her almost wordless performance, but she deserves one. The Irishman is a serious contender for 15 Oscars, and it's tough to say which is most deserved. Scorsese, for a mob picture on par with his classics in a whole new key? De Niro for an artfully understated performance that splatters walls and touches heartstrings? Pop-eyed Pacino for going over the top in a fresh way? Pesci for embodying the wisdom of age? Steven Zaillian for a script as good as his Oscar-winning one for Schindler's List and Oscar-nominated ones for Moneyball and Awakenings (and way better than for his screenplay for Gangs of New York)?

Hard to predict. But one thing is clear: If you don't catch The Irishman on the big screen, don't miss it when it's on Netflix starting Nov. 27.

AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.