The Irishman

By Steve Barton | January 29, 2020

When it comes to movies about mobbed up murder and mayhem, your “go to” actors are Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. These guys play characters who are equally at home ordering the hit or doing the dirty work themselves. Blow someone away in a restaurant? Sure. Strangle somebody from the back seat of a car with piano wire? Duh. Or better yet, blow up the whole car? Check. And they’re all up to their old tricks in the new NETFLIX gangster epic, The Irishman, directed by mob movie maestro, Martin Scorsese.

Basically, The Irishman is the story of the murder of Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), by a double crossing hitman, Frank Sheeran (De Niro), as ordered by creepy mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The movie spans events which take place from World War II through Hoffa’s murder in 1975, and beyond. De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are all in their seventies, but instead of using younger actors for the early scenes and flashbacks, the movie uses some kind of cinematic “de-aging” process that allows them to play their characters as much younger men. It’s not perfect, but the process works pretty well.

Another day at the office.

Hoffa’s disappearance and presumed murder is famously shrouded in mystery, but the movie purports to portray a fictionalized version of what is believed to have happened. It’s hard to summarize the plot, with so many double crossing whackers and whackees, but here goes: Sheeran is an Irish-American who fought in the U.S. Army in Italy in World War II. (Definitely not as an officer and a gentleman.) When he gets back to the states he joins the Teamsters and works as a truck driver in the Philadelphia area. He steals from his employer and faces criminal charges as a result. His Teamster lawyer is played by Ray Romano, which adds a slight comic touch. Romano’s character is related to mafia boss Russell Bufalino, who recognizes that Sheeran is his kind of guy and invites him to work for the mob, an offer which Sheeran probably could have refused at this point, but which he gladly accepts. Bufalino introduces Sheeran to Hoffa. Hoffa and Sheeran become close, and Sheeran ends up doing “jobs” for both Hoffa and Bufalino.

Hoffa thought he was untouchable….

John F. Kennedy gets elected President in 1962 and appoints his younger brother, Robert, as Attorney General. RFK’s primary agenda is to break up the mob, beginning with Hoffa. Hoffa is charged with a number of crimes, including jury tampering, and is eventually convicted in Tennessee and Chicago. He goes to prison for a few years but is pardoned by Nixon on the condition that he stay out of the Teamsters. Hoffa is not having any of that and immediately starts trying to muscle his way back into power. That means pushing out those who had taken over since his departure and a failed attempt to reconcile with his enemy Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano. (A Class A psychopath in his own right.) Too many apple carts are getting overturned, and Bufalino tells Sheeran to warn Hoffa to cool it. Hoffa doesn’t take that very well and threatens Bufalino in return, declaring himself “untouchable”. That’s it. Whack time. Bufalino orders Sheeran to take out Hoffa which Sheeran does after luring Hoffa into an empty house in Detroit. (Shades of Pesci getting “made” in Goodfellas.) Sheehan, Bufalino and the rest of this unsavory crew are eventually convicted of crimes, though none directly related to Hoffa’s murder. (Kind’ve like Capone getting convicted of tax evasion.) They all end up in prison where they begin to age and die. (Yes, this movie just gets happier and happier.) Ultimately, Sheeran is released to a nursing home from which he narrates some of the story in flashbacks.

Bufalino disagreed.

If you liked the Godfather movies, Goodfellas and Casino, you’ll like The Irishman. It basically sticks to the same formula used by Scorsese in his other mob movies. There is a great soundtrack with songs from the era. There’s dark “humor”, sometimes in the form of freeze frames when the cameras focus on a character and the caption says something like:

Tony “the weasel” Guglioni, disappeared in 1978 and found in a landfill outside of Hoboken, New Jersey on March 3, 1981.

There are plenty of wise guys and “colorful characters” (in the sense of stone cold killers with funny names), such as the aforementioned “Tony Pro” (sometimes affectionately referred to as simply “Pro”), Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio, Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, “Whispers” DiTullio, Salatore “Sally Bugs” Salerno, and “Crazy Joe” Gallo. As mentioned, Ray Romano offers some comic relief and there’s a cameo appearance by Stevie Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band fame.

You get plenty of De Niro with his squint, curled lips and downturned mouth. (That generally means somebody’s about to die in a very unpleasant manner.) Pacino overacts as usual (this must be his (and our) punishment for having Fredo killed at the end of Godfather II), but it fits with Hoffa’s egotistical, flamboyant character. Pesci usually plays the frenetic wacko with the baseball bat who stuffs people in the trunk and deposits them in a ditch somewhere in the desert. (“I’m funny how? I mean, funny like a clown? I amuse you?”) Here, however, he is the aging, bespectacled, quasi-respectable mafia kingpin. The malevolence is still there, but it’s understated and mostly implied.

One interesting subplot involves Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy. Peggy learns that her father is a little different from her friends’ fathers early on. She is a little girl and mentions that a boy working for the local grocer pushed her while she was in line at the store. Sheeran proceeds to beat/kick/stomp the grocer (presumably for negligent hiring) in front of Peggy and other passersby (who see nothing and keep walking). Peggy understandably becomes suspicious and fearful of her father as a result. Later in life, she servers all ties with Sheeran. Towards the end of the movie, Sheeran, using a walker, goes to the bank where she works as a teller to see her and try to reconcile. But when Peggy sees him, she puts up the “CLOSED” sign in her window and walks away. It’s hard to feel sorry for Murder Incorporated’s top button man, but you do feel kind of bad for the guy (for about a nanosecond).

Over the years, Sheeran’s family had grown close with Hoffa’s family, including Hoffa’s wife Jo. After the hit, Sheeran is watching TV with his family when the story of Hoffa’s disappearance comes on the news. Sheeran’s wife asks him if he has called Jo to console her. He hems and haws. Then his daughter Peggy asks flatly, “Yea dad, why haven’t you called her?” Sheeran gets up and pours himself a stiff drink. He then goes upstairs and calls Jo in a fumbling, stammering, completely insincere attempt to reassure her that Hoffa might still turn up alive – knowing of course that he personally killed Hoffa the day before. (Can you get any colder?) Later, at the end of the movie, when Sheeran is in a nursing home, a priest is trying to give him absolution. Sheeran admits that he doesn’t really feel much regret. (No surprise here.) Then, in a moment of insight he says out loud, to himself, “What kind of a man makes a call like that?”, obviously referring to his call to Hoffa’s wife. Of course, by that time in the movie, we already know the answer: A guy just like you, Frank.

The Irishman will never be confused with a Hallmark Christmas movie. But the acting is great and it’s (relatively speaking) not all that violent. Certainly less so than its predecessors. It’s fairly long at 2 ½ hours, but never boring. It’s like taking a rollicking carnival ride at a “Mobster World” amusement park. Bada bing, bada boom.

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