Centre, from left: Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa) and Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran)
Centre, from left: Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa) and Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran) © Niko Tavernise / NETFLIX

Every gangster movie is about deaths. But how many are about death? That’s the wonder, originality and profundity of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. A three-and-a-half-hour journey through “Underworld USA”, as moviemanes and mythomanes have sometimes dubbed the gangster realm, the film is like a true trip to Hades. Or a long gaze at its brochure. Which is better? To die in a bullet hail, a simple, ambushed sinner/criminal; or to go to death slowly and unshriven, like bodyguard and career hit-man Robert De Niro, whose keeping of his most closely guarded secret is both his last vice and his last virtue?

Scripted by Steven Schindler’s List Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s book about events leading to the 1975 disappearance and probable murder of powerful union leader Jimmy Hoffa, the movie starts and ends in an old people’s home. The white-haired wrinkly voicing his story is Irish-American Frank Sheeran (De Niro). We flashback to the same character, fortyish and older, also played by De Niro, as he switchbacks and switchblades through the century’s middle decades.

Al Pacino plays union boss Jimmy Hoffa

It’s a Netflix movie. The action is tight-framed; so occasionally are the swirling social frescoes. We’re nearly dying for air in some party and restaurant scenes, but that may be the idea. Sheeran survived the second world war only to be interned in the tarnished, claustrophobic glitter of the American crime world. Here everyone knows everyone else, and everyone clambers over everyone else to try to reach the top. The alpha male among outlaws notionally observing the law is Hoffa, played by Al Pacino as if all his other braying movie baddies were just rehearsals. This meld of Hamlet and Caligula anguishes over slights, gobbles up rivals, rages at perceived enemies (mainly attorney-general Bobby Kennedy), grabs passing plunder or payola, then not-quite-finally goes to jail.

Once out, he is back with his bodyguard, Sheeran, and the crime wars narrow to a duel with his foes (led by Joe Pesci’s wizened, glittering mob boss) and the disputed ownership of the Teamsters’ crown. In the 1960s and 70s, being the truckers’ union boss was evidently the equivalent of owning all the lottery tickets in America.

'Goodfellas' and 'Casino' stars De Niro and Pesci are reunited in 'The Irishman'

After Goodfellas and Casino we thought we had had it all, for voluptuous crime-athons involving De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese. Now here’s another tree with golden rotten apples, sumptuously shaken. The Irishman has a wonderful line in cankered comedy-cynicism. While television sets burble the minor national news — the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK — the true dance of good and evil is in the turned-up, cloak-and-dagger foreground. Chronicling in overvoice his early career, De Niro says, “I started painting houses…” Cut to a bullet sound and a spray of blood across a wall. Later, when voiceover duty carousels to additional characters, another wag aphorises: “Usually three people can keep a secret only when two of them are dead.”

Between and among the gallows gags comes the gallows storytelling. Death is common tender in this world: all the criminals know that. So Scorsese and Zaillian allow them, almost Shakespeareanly, to muse, riff, soliloquise on ends to come. Most of the film’s final scenes are about Sheeran/De Niro measuring himself for mortality. Literally, when he picks his own coffin (a fetching shade of shamrock green). Metaphorically, when he anguishes, until the moment of resolution, between confession and closed-mouth loyalty — to those innocents he can still protect — as his last, best ticket, if not to the life hereafter, then to spiritual peace in what is left of this one.


‘The Irishman’ opened in cinemas in the US on November 1; it is released in the UK on November 8, and on Netflix worldwide from November 27

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