The Irishman at LFF: disappointing, if competent, straight-to-DVD mediocrity

Given the comments Martin Scorsese has recently made about a certain cinematic universe, it’s rather ironic that his latest film plays something like a bland Hallmark movie. As vanilla and dull as the ice-cream Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa obsessively consumes over the course of a lethally overlong 3.5 hours, The Irishman is nothing but the tired gangster sibling of Avengers Endgame.

Likewise assembling a roster of veritable La-La Land superheroes: De Niro, Pesci, Romano and the aforementioned Pacino, before dragging them through a painfully generic script and lacklustre direction, this behemoth of a disappointment is similarly destined to be over-praised.

De Niro stars as Frank Sheeran (the titular Irishman), an ex-soldier who becomes a hitman for the mob under boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Before long, he’s assigned in a bodyguard/advisor role to labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). What follows is a historically dubious imagining of how Hoffa (a real person) vanished in 1975 and was declared dead in 1982. A subject of various conspiracy theories, Hoffa’s presumed murder was widely cited as involving Frank Sheeran in sources after he had died.

This is, it’s worth bearing in mind, a ridiculously expensive film – costing some $159 million (a sum greater than Blade Runner 2049) – although you would be forgiven for suspecting embezzling. Indeed, the most startling thing about The Irishman is how cheap and generic it looks. There’s not a single shot in the entire film that makes you sit up and go ‘wow’, or a section of soundtrack that sticks out as anything more than ‘competent’. The only attempt made at style comes early in the film, when the words ‘I HEAR YOU PAINT HOUSES’ mysteriously flash up on the screen for apparently no reason – nothing remotely like that happens for the rest of the runtime. Overall, there is a conspicuous lack of auteurial stamp on the work.

With audio-visual fireworks absent, The Irishman relies heavily on its script to propel us through its punishing length, but the words on the page are just as lifeless as the direction onscreen; nay a quotable line or piece of genuine wisdom in sight. What’s more, a casual atmosphere of confusion pervades throughout. Scorsese never bothers to tell us who most of these people are and how they relate to each other, instead content with introducing us via freeze frames that detail nothing more than their names and the way in which they died. As a result, it’s hard to tell why anyone is doing anything and who gets to boss who around. At one point, Frank is given a mob ring by Bufalino – something that was (if Goodfellas was any indication) reserved for the high-ups – but Frank is a nobody: he never has any authority in his actions. Likewise, the final violent actions of the film (which we shouldn’t reveal here) make no sense in light of the vested interests of the characters involved.

Why does Sheeran spontaneously give up his day job and risk his liberty to commit crime for the mob? Why does he, seemingly without thinking, start carrying out hits as if people are nothing more than meaningless resources? We don’t really understand anything about the character, because he’s nothing more than a thin sketch on a flimsy slip of paper, drifting in the wind. Likewise, it’s not clear how the lionised Hoffa could simultaneously care so much about his poorly-defined union and also use up its pension fund on the mob. De Niro is playing De Niro, Pacino is playing Pacino, Pesci is playing Pesci – there are no real characters in this story for them to become.

I confess, I make this film sound more of a disaster than it is. With a work as hyped as The Irishman, made by a creative team so revered, there’s an automatic impulse to procedurally lay out all the ways in which it fails – and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s completely worthless. For one, it’s watchable. Despite its excessive length, this is not a ‘boring’ piece of work – and I was more than satisfied to sit through it.

There’s also an intimate warmth that’s a refreshing break from the usual violent machismo that pervades gangland thrillers. In it’s last half an hour, particularly, the film comes into its own as an exploration of the violence we leave behind long after we’re gone. If Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street had left audiences in any doubt as to Mr. Scorsese’s estimation of crooks, this should put their concerns at rest. In fact, one wonders if Scorsese could’ve cut around an hour from the middle of this film and had a much better piece of work examining human impermanence. As it stands, only 1/7 of his film currently addresses these interesting themes.

Al Pacino reliably gives a signature performance, confirming once again why we think of him as one of the pre-eminent talents in film history. De Niro comes off as a little senile at points, but for the most part also settles into the mob mode that made him a household name in the mid-20th-Century. The standout revelation of the piece, though, has to come from Joe Pesci, who was lured out of retirement by Scorsese specifically for the film. In a way it’s sad to watch this and know that we’ll be seeing no more of the veteran actor, who never really seemed to fully come into his own as a leading man over the course of his career. Here, he manages to out-act Pacino and De Niro to deliver the strongest and most emotionally resonant moments in the film.  

But overall, the fact remains: The Irishman has little to say or do, and little verve with which to say it. It’s a vaguely inoffensive jumble of mob-movie clichés and Lifetime Channel cinematic beige that’s anchored by some excellent performances and the historical prestige of its director. Playing out at an epic length pretty much unheard of in mainstream cinema but featuring nothing more than an empty void with which to fill it, it’s one of the most disappointing efforts of the year. If this didn’t have Scorsese’s name on the tin, I struggle to see how it would be able to reach beyond the deep, forgotten pile of other mediocre Netflix originals.


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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