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Movie Review: Grumpy old gangsters

Apart from being an intriguing yarn about mobsters, labor unions and United States political conspiracy theories, “The Irishman” is a character study about some real characters, actual and fictional.

It’s also a cinematic reunion of some of the greatest actors of a generation in the past five decades.

“The Irishman” is a particularly Pennsylvania story.

Director Martin Scorsese brings together Robert De Niro as Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (1920 - 2003), a high-ranking official in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters accused of having links to the Bufalino crime family in Philadelphia; Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa (1913 - 1975; declared dead in 1982), elected president of the Teamsters in 1957; Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino (1903 - 1994), based in Kingston, Luzerne County, alleged to have controlled organized crime in Pittston, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and upstate New York 1959 - 1989, and Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno, said to be boss of the Philadelphia crime family for two decades until he was shot in the back of the head in 1980.

De Niro is delightful as Sheeran, portraying him as a not-too-bright go-to-guy apparently willing to do whatever he was asked, including murder. Pesci is interesting as Bufalino, portraying him as a friendly curmudgeon. Keitel doesn’t have much screen time in a small role as Bruno. Pacino steals the show in a bravura performance as the enigmatic and explosive Hoffa.

“The Irishman” is a rogues’ gallery of wise guys. The cast includes Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino, Hoffa’s attorney and cousin of Russell Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio), Domenick Lombardozzi (Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno), Sebastian Maniscalco (Joseph “Crazy Joey” Gallo), Stephen Graham (Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano) and Paul Ben-Victor (Jake Gottlieb).

The United States government, using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, named Sheeran, Provenzano and Salerno in connection with the Commission of La Cosa Nostra.

The disappearance of Hoffa in 1975 is one of the great unsolved mysteries. Hoffa was attempting to regain his labor post after serving time in prison. The Teamsters union is alleged to have helped fund construction of casinos in Las Vegas, part of the plotline in Scorsese’s “Casino” (1995).

“The Irishman” screenplay by Steven Zaillian (adapted screenplay Oscar recipient, “Schindler’s List,” 1994; adapted screenplay Oscar nominee, “Moneyball,” 2011; original screenplay Oscar nominee, “Gangs of New York,” 2003; adapted screenplay nominee, “Awakenings,” 1990) is based on the biography, “I Heard You Paint Houses” (2004) by Charles Brandt. The title refers to hitmen whose killings spray the blood of their victims on the walls of houses.

Brandt, an attorney, homicide investigator, prosecutor and former Delaware Deputy Attorney General, co-authored “Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business” with undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone (the real-life Donnie Brasco), who infiltrated the Bonanno and Colombo crime families, two of the Five Families of the Mafia in New York City. “Unfinished Business” was adapted as the movie, “Donnie Brasco” (1997), starring Al Pacino, as aging Bonanno gangster Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, and Johnny Depp, as Joe Pistone.

Ralph Montesano directed Joe Pistone’s one-man show, “Donnie Brasco: The Way of the Wiseguy,” in 2010 at The Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem, in which Pistone’s nephew, Joseph Pistone II, a son of Dominic Pistone of Walnutport, played Pistone.

The pop-up history in “The Irshman” is comparable to director Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” (2019), which played fast and loose with the facts concerning cult leader Charlie Manson and the 1969 killing of movie starlet Sharon Tate and others, even to invoking an alternative-fact ending.

In “The Irishman,” the alternative facts are a continuum, including Sheeran’s claiming that he killed Hoffa and “Crazy Joey” Gallo. Fantasy and fact comingle in “The Irishman,” enhanced by scenes recreated or newsreel footage included as a backdrop to, for example, the John F. Kennedy election, Bay of Pigs Invasion, Kennedy assassination, Nixon impeachment and Hoffa incarceration, not to mention Don Rickles’ standup, Jerry Vale concertizing and Golddiggers high-kicking dancers.

Scorsese and the lead actors in “The Irishman” explored the world of the Italian-American mob before. It’s as if their movie careers are married to the mob. Scorsese directed De Niro and Pesci in “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Casino” (1995). Scorsese also directed the 1860s’ Irish mob-themed “The Gangs Of New York” (2002) and the contemporary Boston mob-themed “The Departed” (2006). Whereas “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” as well as director Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” (1983), which starred Pacino as a drug dealer, seemed to glorify or at least hold in awe the lives of mobsters, there’s little such aggrandizement in “The Irishman.”

“The Irishman” is Scorsese’s epic, akin to director Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984), which starred De Niro as a Jewish gangster and spanned some three decades. “Once Upon A Time in America” is 3 hr., 49 min. “The Irishman” is 3 hr., 29 min., but also spans approximately three decades.

“The Irishman” represents Scorsese embracing the latest in Computer Generated Technology (CGI), as he did in “Hugo” (2011). Industrial Light and Magic utilized CGI, with digital de-aging taking years off the faces, if not the bodies, of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, where their faces are made to appear younger when portraying their characters in younger years.

Embellished faces or facts, “The Irishman” spins a fascinating yarn about Frank Sheeran and his cohorts. In that alone, the film is worth a look. “The Irishman” provides bread crumbs of historic factoids, enhanced just enough as is the digital de-aging of the lead actors’ faces. To reveal too much about these elements would spoil your experience in seeing the film.

“The Irishman” is of particular interest to fans of De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel. They are tremendous in scenes together. It’s bittersweet to remember these great actors in movies when they were young: De Niro (“Mean Streets,” 1973; supporting actor Oscar recipient, “The Godfather: Part II,” 1974; “Taxi Driver,” 1976; “The Deer Hunter,” 1978; “Once Upon a Time in America”; actor Oscar recipient, “Raging Bull,” 1980; “The Untouchables,” 1987; “Goodfellas”); Pacino (“The Godfather,” 1972; “Godfather II”; “Dog Day Afternoon,” 1975; “Scarface”; actor Oscar recipient, “Scent of a Woman,” 1992), Pesci (“Once Upon a Time in America”; supporting actor Oscar recipient, “Goodfellas“) and Keitel (“Mean Streets”; “Wise Guys,” 1986), Now they’re senior citizens, geezers, you might say, and no longer young bucks. In “The Irishman,” they kvetch a lot. Call it “Grumpy Old Gangsters.”

“The Irishman” has its share of depictions of shocking violence, but it also has passages of laugh-out-loud humor. The production design (Bob Shaw) and art design (Laura Ballinger) is tremendous. Movie-goers, especially those from the Philadelphia region, will have fun seeing familiar signs and places (Latin Casino, Food Fair, Schuylkill River), cars (1949 Hudson Hornet), interior and exterior architecture (Las Vegas’ Dunes Hotel) and fashions (wide ties and even wider lapels) from the 1950s through 1970s. The cinematography (mostly 35mm; Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto) is imaginative. The editing (Thelma Schoonmaker) is crisp. “The Irishman” has seamless flashbacks. The soundtrack has Scorsese’s usual bevy of pop music in the key of decades.

“The Irishman” should garner multiple Oscar nominations: screenplay, director, picture, and for De Niro and Pacino.

“The Irishman” is the third film in a Scorsese trilogy of sorts, with “Goodfellas” and “Casino” as parts one and two, and could be compared to director Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy.

“The Irishman” is Scorsese’s “Citizen Kane” (1941). It begins with De Niro as an elderly Frank Sheeran in a wheelchair in a home for the elderly, not unlike Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland) in director Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” considered by many film critics and fans the greatest film ever made. In “The Irishman,” though, De Niro as Sheeran begins the film in voiceover before direct-address. De Niro voiceovers are sprinkled throughout the film, as are on-screen titles about the fate of some of the gangsters.

Speaking of sitting, “The Irishman” is a long film. It doesn’t feel long. However, it may feel long if you got that extra-large soda at the concession stand.

“The Irishman” also draws comparisons to directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men” (2007). As Michael “Movie Maven” Gontkosky put it regarding “The Irishman.” “Call it ‘No Country for Old Mobsters.’”

Making movies is a young man’s game, as are many things in life. It’s great to see Scorsese still in the game with a bunch of pros stepping up to the plate. They may not be hitting home runs, but they are still getting on base and scoring, albeit maybe with a sacrifice fly or two. Still, a Run Batted In (RBI) is an RBI. There are plenty in “The Irishman.”

The story of “The Irishman,” of Frank Sheeran, is Shakespearean in its tragedy. The sine qua non is not in the true facts or fake news of Sheeran’s life, but rather in the gaining of wisdom. “You don’t know how fast time goes until you get there,” it’s stated in “The Irishman.”

As my late, great mom used to say, “Ain’t it the truth!”

“The Irishman,” MPAA Rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for “pervasive language and strong violence”; Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama; Run time: 3 hr., 29 min.; Distributed by Netflix.

Credit Readers Anonymous: “The Irishman” was filmed on location in New York City and in New York, New Jersey and Florida. Steven Van Zandt plays singer Jerry Vale. Jim Norton plays Don Rickles.

Box Office, Nov. 29-Dec. 1: “Frozen II” again heated up the box office, with $85.2 million, setting three- and five-day records for the Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend, to stay at No. 1 two weeks in a row, $287.5 million, two weeks, with “Knives Out” slicing its way to No. 2, with $27 million, weekend; $41.7 million, since opening Nov. 27, as “Ford v Ferrari” dropped one place to No. 3, with $13.2 million, $81 million, three weeks, and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” dropped one place to No. 4. with $11.8 million, $34.3 million, two weeks.

5. “Queen & Slim,” $11.7 million, weekend; $15.8 million, since its Nov. 27 opening. 6. “21 Bridges” dropped two places, $5.8 million, $19.4 million, two weeks. 7. “Playing with Fire” dropped one place, $4.2 million, $39.2 million, four weeks. 8. “Midway” dropped three places, $3.9 million, $50.2 million, four weeks. 9. “Joker” moved up one place, $2 million, $330.6 million, nine weeks. 10. “Last Christmas” dropped one place, $1.9 million, $31.6 million, four weeks.

Unreel, Dec. 7:

“Playmobil: The Movie,” No MPAA rating: Lino DiSalvo directs, with the voice talents of Anya Taylor-Joy, Gabriel Bateman, Jim Gaffigan and Daniel Radcliffe in the Animation Feature Comedy. The movie is inspired by the Playmobil brand toys.

“The Aeronauts,” PG-13: Tom Harper directs Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Himesh Patel and Phoebe Fox in the Adventure Romance. A pilot and scientist use a hot-air balloon in their research.

Four Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO COURTESY NETFLIXAl Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), left, and Robert De Niro (Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran), right in “The Irishman.”