Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
If you’ve never seen a film by Martin Scorsese, then this film might be enthralling. However, most people who watch this film are probably ones who have seen a Scorsese film at least once before. Those who have enjoyed a Scorsese flick will find pleasures to be had here. Cinephiles who are more familiar with Scorsese’s work won’t find anything new, bold or all that innovative to his efforts in this epic story. It doesn’t topple his hit film The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), which still stands as his best film of this decade. It certainly doesn’t come close to his second-best film of the past two decades, which is the Oscar-winning The Aviator (2004). Both those films were reinvigorating for Scorsese because they both embraced his new muse, that of Leonardo DiCaprio who is 30 years younger than Scorsese’s last muse, that of Robert De Niro.
Working with DiCaprio had really reinvigorated Scorsese, giving him fresh blood with whom to work. It got him doing new and different things or things he hadn’t done in ages. With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese did a comedy, which is something he hadn’t done in nearly 30 years. In the wake of working with DiCaprio, Scorsese did a children’s film, that of Hugo (2011), something he had never done before, unless one counts Kundun (1997). However, with this film, it feels as if Scorsese is taking a step back and reverting back to old patterns. It seemed as if he was on a track of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg or Ang Lee, who demonstrate range and the ability to do a variety or different types of films. With this film, he’s moving back to feeling akin to filmmakers like Woody Allen who seem capable of doing only a limited kind or one type of film. For Scorsese, that type of film is the gangster flick or crime drama involving the mob.
With the casting that he’s done here, he makes the point even more clear that he’s reverting back to his old ways. Scorsese has done a half-dozen or more of these kinds of films. He’s done a half-dozen or more of these gangster flicks. This film, which is an adaptation of Charlie Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004), is yet another gangster flick to toss on Scorsese’s pile. This one feels no different than many of his previous ones. If you’ve seen Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) especially, then you’ve already seen this new film. In fact, the same two actors from those two films reappear in this one, besides their being nearly 30 years older than they were back then. The film’s subject matter and storytelling techniques are essentially the same too, including the narration, the select camera angles and the matter-of-fact violence.
That being said, the director at the helm is Martin Scorsese, so there is an assured skill with which things are wielded. There are other filmmakers who could also be accused of repeating themselves besides Scorsese or Allen, but when the director has so much skill as Scorsese, the film can be a repeat with that being probably the only bad thing that could be said about the film. The acting is of course superb and the editing incredible, even with its 209-minute length. There isn’t much that feels wasted here. For viewers of a certain age, this story will feel like a rehash as the subject matter is not just about gangsters and mobsters of Irish and Italian descent. It also hones specifically on the disappearance and presumed murder of Jimmy Hoffa.
The Hoffa case is one of the most famous cases. Hoffa disappeared in 1975. His body was never found. He was assumed to have been killed in a mob hit near Detroit. However, no one was ever charged and no evidence was ever discovered that could pin it to any specific person. Obviously, tons of people have been killed in suspected and even proven mob hits. What made Hoffa special is that he was the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which was one of the largest and most powerful unions in the country with strong political ties. Hoffa was the subject of federal investigations into organized crime. He even had connections to President John F. Kennedy, so his name had been in the national news at least for a decade prior to his disappearance.
In the 40 years since, there have been numerous theories that have arisen, trying to explain what happened to Hoffa and who was involved. Brandt’s book is the latest in those theories. Brandt is a lawyer-turned-writer from New York City who graduated from the University of Delaware and who now lives in Lewes, Delaware. Brandt represented a man who was suspected of murdering Hoffa on another matter. That man was Frank Sheeran who after getting out of prison for racketeering confessed to killing Hoffa to Brandt. After getting all the details and after Sheeran’s death in 2003, Brandt published Sheeran’s memoir. There have been disputes to the validity of that memoir but many believe it to be a true account and perhaps the final word on this issue.
Robert De Niro (Goodfellas and Casino) stars as Frank Sheeran, a truck driver from Philadelphia who is accused of stealing meat from the meatpacking company that employs him. He goes to trial, but he is represented by a mob lawyer named William E. Bufalino. As a result, Frank begins working for the Bufalino crime family. He quickly becomes an enforcer for them, helping them to extort or simply collect money from people. It doesn’t take long for that job to escalate into him being a hit man for the Bufalino clan.
Joe Pesci (Goodfellas and Casino) co-stars as Russell Bufalino, the head of the Bufalino crime family, an Italian family with mafia connections. Despite Frank being Irish, he speaks Italian, which impresses Russell. Frank’s service in World War II also impresses Russell. He sees something in Frank that he trusts, that he thinks will be loyal or that he thinks he can use. When Frank makes a mistake against another mob boss, it’s Russell who protects Frank, further bringing him into his organization. He then becomes the bridge to linking Frank to other mobsters.
Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II and Angels in America) also co-stars as Jimmy Hoffa, the union leader in Chicago who also befriends Frank after Frank is sent to help with a dispute involving the taxi cab drivers in the Windy City. A large chunk of the film then becomes telling what are ostensibly the last 20 years of Jimmy’s life. Jimmy became president of the IBT in 1957 and presumably died in 1975. These two decades were already depicted in Danny DeVito’s Hoffa (1992). I think if someone wants a deep dive into who Jimmy Hoffa was, that’s probably the film for it. Here, Scorsese condenses all that into a sketch that’s more emblematic of Pacino as an actor than anything else.
For the first hour or so when the film is mostly De Niro and Pesci, it feels like a walk through nostalgia. It isn’t until Pacino enters the film that things spark to life. Yes, Pacino has been in several gangster or mobster films, including the “godfather” of them all, but this is Pacino’s first time working with Scorsese and working together they come up with some great moments. Those moments include some great bits of humor. Two of my favorite scenes in that regard involve Pacino going toe-to-toe with Stephen Graham (Rocketman and Gangs of New York), who plays Anthony Provenzano aka “Tony Pro.” The two scenes that basically end with them coming to blows were excellent in terms of leaning into the humor. In terms of leaning into the drama and a bit of the suspense, the best scene in that regard is the scene toward the end where Jimmy squares off with Russell. Both Pesci and Pacino are incredible in that scene.
Pacino has been nominated for the Academy Award for acting eight times, having won once. He proves why in those scenes and pretty much every scene that has him in front of the camera. Pacino hasn’t been nominated in 27 years. In that interim, he’s been nominated and winning Emmy Awards, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this film brings him back to the Oscars. This film isn’t lacking in good actors. Not all of them get their due. Chief among them are the female actors.
One in particular is Oscar-winner Anna Paquin (The Piano and X-Men) who plays Peggy Sheeran, the daughter to Frank. Now, if the film had ended with the death of Jimmy Hoffa, that would be one thing. Yet, the film continues after Hoffa’s death to explore the aftermath and how it affected Frank’s life, especially in regard to how his children, namely his daughters were affected. That last act would have been more effective, if more were given to his daughters, specifically Peggy. All we get is that as a little girl, she doesn’t like Russell and there is distance between her and Frank, but we rather lose sight of Frank’s family for the bulk of this film.
Rated R for pervasive language and strong violence.
Running Time: 3 hrs. and 29 mins.
Available on Netflix.