Anyone familiar with the Mafia movie genre knows that Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and “Casino” stand out as some of the best films the genre has to offer. But besides the films themselves, fans can’t forget the actors who helped make the genre what it is today — actors like Robert De Niro (“Goodfellas”), Al Pacino (“The Godfather”) and Joe Pesci (“Casino”). There would be nothing better to a fan of mob films than to have all these great names collaborate on a project and revitalize the genre for new generations. Well, Netflix’s upcoming original film “The Irishman” is just that.
The Film’s Beginnings
The idea behind the creation of “The Irishman” began in 2001 when De Niro told Scorsese about a book he read that he thought would make for a good film adaptation, expressing interest in wanting to play the novel’s central character, Frank Sheeran.
That book was “I Heard You Paint Houses” — which directly translates to “I heard you kill people” in mob speak — by Charles Brandt, a former homicide and death penalty prosecutor who interviewed and video recorded the real Irishman, Frank Sheeran. Brandt mentions how Sheeran, a devout Catholic, received reconciliation and communion from a priest before confessing to the murder of Jimmy Hoffa.
After years of several production studios turning down De Niro and Scorsese’s idea, Netflix finally agreed to the project in 2017. Once he got approval from Netflix, Scorsese enticed Joe Pesci to come out of retirement to play the role of mob boss Russell Bufalino, despite declining Scorsese’s offer several times.
Once the film got rolling, the film amassed other notable faces to feature alongside the greats, such as Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and comedian Sebastian Maniscalco in supporting roles. With a stellar cast of actors known for other Mafia movies, “The Irishman” might be the greatest ensemble of actors in the genre yet.
After having lived through the Great Depression and fighting in World War 2, Frank Sheeran became a hitman and enforcer for the Mafia, targeting members of opposing labor unions who interfered in mob affairs. A union leader himself (for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters), Sheeran allowed the Mafia to infiltrate the union for their own agenda.
Jimmy Hoffa, the leader of the Teamsters during that time, became one such target, leaving Sheeran to execute the job. Despite Sheeran and Hoffa’s close friendship, it would appear that (if his confession is true) Sheeran betrayed his best friend’s trust, making the treacherous act a prime subject for Scorsese’s exploration.
After experiencing the hazards of blue-collar professions and losing his coal miner father to lung cancer, Jimmy Hoffa made a name for himself by advocating for the safety of workers and quickly reached the position of president of the Teamsters in 1957. But, due to his dealings with the Mafia and indulging in illegal activity, he was sentenced to 13 years in jail in 1967.
But four years into his sentence, President Richard Nixon pardoned him with the stipulation that Hoffa suspend his involvement with the union until 1980. Hoffa, however, had no intention of honoring Nixon’s terms and went on to reclaim his position in the union. “The Irishman” will explore this period of Hoffa’s life, and how his pursuit for power ceased at the time of his supposed murder.
Another big player in “The Irishman” is Russel “McGee” Bufalino, who became boss of the Bufalino crime family in northeastern Pennsylvania following the death of his predecessor, Santo Volpe, in 1958. As seen in the opening shot of the trailer, as Sheeran walks into the Villa Di Roma Restaurant, Bufalino is the one who introduces Sheeran to Hoffa, teasing the conflict between the men and warning Hoffa to be grateful for the Mafia’s support.
It’s presumed that he was the one who ordered Sheeran to kill Hoffa by luring him to the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, where Sheeran then presumably killed him — though there is no physical evidence to suggest that this was Hoffa’s true fate.
What Will “The Irishman” Be Like?
“The Irishman” is Scorsese’s longest production yet, as principal photography began in September of 2017 and ended in March of 2018, consisting of 106 days total of shooting. The film will also be Scorsese’s most expensive endeavor, with the budget rising from an original amount of $125 million to $140 million to $175 million. In regards to the film’s estimated runtime, Scorsese has said there are a total of 300 scenes in the film, signifying a lengthy duration, assuming no scenes are cut during the film’s editing.
Speaking on the editing process, Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked as Scorsese’s editor for most of his films, makes it clear that “The Irishman” is not another “Goodfellas” or “Casino” and is its own entity.
Schoonmaker’s statement could imply that “The Irishman” won’t be like other Mafia movies, with perhaps different tones or elements not seen in others. Or Schoonmaker might mean that Scorsese is applying new directorial methods not seen in his other works (freezeframes, voice-overs and tracking shots), making “The Irishman” not only his biggest movie but his most distinctive one yet.
The De-Aging Process
Besides the actors’ paychecks, the reason for the film’s large budget lies in the collaboration with the visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic, who are using CGI to de-age the timeworn De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, appearing as younger versions of their character for at least half of the film. As to whether or not the special effects will be good enough to make the veteran actors look younger remains to be seen.
The last shot of the trailer showing De Niro talking on the phone offers a glimpse at the quality of the special effects, as De Niro’s hair has been reinfused with color and his face is devoid of wrinkles.
Past attempts of similar de-aging technology have not always been received well, seen with Peter Cushing’s General Hoff in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator: Salvation.” As long as the quality of special effects seen in the last shot will remain consistent and doesn’t distract from the film’s story, the money will be well spent.
The Film’s Accessibility
With its immense budget and beyond famous actors, it’s a shame the film will only be available on Netflix and select theaters, seeing as how its story and the amount of effort being put in merits a much, much wider audience. While people who already have Netflix have an easier way of watching, those without subscriptions will miss out on what could be Scorsese’s best film.
Though every fan of Scorsese or Mafia films may purchase Netflix subscription just to see it (taking advantage of the free trial period), it’s more likely the film will suffer in ratings and not receive the attention it deserves when it releases this fall.
“The Irishman” is set to premiere at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 17.