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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: The Irishman (2019)

The new film from Martin Scorsese tells the purportedly true story of Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro (Raging Bull, Bad Grandpa), a corrupt union organiser and, somewhat implausibly, a deadly assassin.

There has been a lot written about The Irishman lately, and for good reason.

From a critical perspective, the film has been showered with praise. It seems highly likely that it will win big at the Academy Awards in the New Year, with Al Pacino (Serpico, Jack and Jill) likely to win Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of infamously disappeared Teamster Union leader Jimmy Hoffa in the film.

In terms of pre-release press, we learned that the film was only made after an incredibly long development period, that it was based upon the best-selling memoir I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, and that distributor Netflix spent a whopping £160M on the film - not least to pay for the digital de-ageing of the principle cast, who we follow through over 50 years of modern American history.

Why not cast younger actors for the sections in the past, you might ask? They did for some characters - but not the stars. That would have helped with the voices, and the tiny old-man eyes, and the way they all move. And if they had, we would not be talking about this film. But that's by the by. 

Another way the film generated column-inches was when its director, Martin Scorcese, threw a Molotov cocktail into the film press when he claimed, repeatedly, that comic book movies were "not cinema" and followed this statement up with an unconvincing essay in the New York Times.

This latter point is particularly curious, not least because, if you take a minute to think about it, The Irishman has an awful lot in common with recent cinematic comic book adaptations.

Firstly, the film is incredibly long - over three-and-a-half hours - and it is an epic; it time-hops through American history and ultimately offers a conspiracy theory about secret, adept individuals manipulating current affairs.

Hmm. Curious...

Let us also not forget that the kind of digital de-ageing technology used in The Irishman was prominently deployed to 'youngify' Robert Downey Jr in Captain America: Civil War - and if you think about Tony Stark and Frank Sheeran together, and squint a bit, you might even come to think of them as quite similar. 

Both sociopaths. Both on coming-of-age journeys. Similar look. Similar penchant for murder and blowing stuff up. 

Perhaps De Niro's Sheeran is less the doddery, bow-legged killer "The Irishman" and more the CG-enhanced superhero "Irish Man"? 

And as a side note, the idea that De Niro looks, sounds or feels in any way Irish in this film is laughable. Aside from the blue contact lenses, and character's choice of a green coffin for himself towards the end of the movie, the conceit is wafer thin. But don't think about that sort of stuff - Thanos is just that powerful, okay? 

(For the record, the real life Frank Sheeran was pale skinned, strawberry blonde, very tall, very fat, and an alcoholic - but more on that anon...)

To continue with the Marvel analogy, part of the appeal of this film is that it offers geriatric screen legends the chance to appear alongside one another one last time - a conceit explored in previous De Niro movie Grudge Match, with Sylvester Stallone. They did the same thing with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in X-Men: The Last Stand, remember? 

No? Just me then. 

In this movie, we have the more exciting alliance of De Niro and Pacino for the first time since that fleeting diner scene in Michael Mann's extraordinary 1995 thriller Heat. It is a kind of comic-book cross-over event - like Batman versus Superman or, indeed, Irish Man versus Captain Italian-American.

Also like the Marvel movies, the ensemble here is vast. Instead of costumed heroes like Nick Fury and Doctor Strange, Spider-man and so on, we have Joe Pesci (Home Alone, Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead) and Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire, Mr Robot), Stephen Graham (Snatch, Gangs of New York) and Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo). 

Even Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) pops up - although nobody could be bothered to digitally de-age him, it seems; his character remains ancient for decades of narrative time in the movie.

Presumably there is only so much computers can do - even in 2019.

Much akin to Marvel's films, the characters 'played' by these people do not really have arcs - they are there to be icons, and give off a glitzy sense of gangsterness. This they do, but to say that anyone but Graham does much acting here strains credulity - and even he just whacks on some wigs, a scenery chewing demeanour, and an American accent. 

We are ultimately drawn to this film to see the stars in it clashing - it is basically Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War on that level, only with bad knees and fewer airships. 

Lastly, like the Marvel films, The Irishman is incredibly macho. It is a film about men throwing their weight around, rarely emoting, sidelining and disregarding women; there are articles out there defending the mere seven words spoken by Anna Paquin's character, but any such justifications are pretty pathetic when exposed to daylight.

Also, let us not forget, Paquin's own star-making role as Rogue in the X-Men franchise, during which her part became less and less prominent and boiled down to her occasionally touching beefy men to give them a chance at redemption.

It's all pretty meta, when you think about it. 

Anyway, suffice to say that Scorcese's high-minded attack on comic book blockbusters does not hold water. His film *is* one - with the memoir on which it is based being about as plausible as the latest issue of Fantastic Four.

I say this because the best-selling book behind The Irishman is baloney. It has been roundly discredited, and although it was a best-seller so was The Da Vinci Code: both looked to offer pulpy, somewhat compelling resolutions to long-running mysteries, but both are absolutely ridiculous, too.

And this film isn't trying to be clever or to play with the idea of unreliable narrators in a manner akin to 2002s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or 2012s The Iceman.  The film is actually most reminiscent of Godfather Part III - but that's the one people don't normally bother to watch, so we'd best ignore the parallels. 

Anyhow, the conceit that the real life Frank Sheeran was - or in this film, is - a kind of mafiosi Forrest Gump, having a hand in key moments of post-war American history, is great fun, but it is also poppycock. That he delivered the weapons for the Bay of Pigs invasion, the rifle to Lee Harvey Oswald, or that he killed all of the people he claimed he killed, is all so silly that despite the film having many merits - issues of De Niro's heritage notwithstanding - it is very difficult to remain critically engaged while simultaneously taking any of it seriously.

Undoubtedly the period costumes are amazing, and there are shots and sequences that are impeccably conveyed, but the film is so silly, so wrong, and so poorly considered overall that all the praise being showered on it seems somehow ironic. 

A case of The Emporer's Digitally Simulated Clothes, perhaps. 

Case in point - the film starts with a long tracking shot through a nursing home to reveal De Niro's elderly Sheeran talking to thin air. We cut back to this bizarre narration several times, yet there is never an explanation of who he is talking to - and even when the character is no longer sat talking, perfectly cogently, into empty space, the narration continues right up to the end of the film. 

What is the framing device here? Think about it. It doesn't make sense - and neither does it make sense when we jump back through time into memories that then jump further back within those memories, and yet further back still, like some kind of dementia-based-version of Christopher Nolan's Inception - albeit one where the character does not have dementia and remembers every moment of his life with perfect clarity.

It's absurd and nonsensical - but don't worry. Infinity Gauntlet, etc etc. 

A bigger sin however, and the film's ultimate problem, is its pointlessness. It bears comparisons to a great many gangster films, and is in many senses just another genre film of this type, albeit with the pulpy conspiracy twist. And these films, from Scarface to Goodfellas to The Godfather, all end the same way. The bad guys, who have been bad for a long time, and who have been pretty unsympathetic in their badness, end up sad or dead at the end. 

Well, whoop-di-do. I mean, for all its issues at least The Wolf of Wall Street was morally ambiguous. The Irishman doesn't even have the guts to make us feel complicit, or give us an uncomfortable conclusion, and it comes up wanting as a result. 

And a final note on the sense that we are meant to see the film as an allegory for the lives and careers of the actors in it - that it's a film acknowledging regrets, personal flaws, and ought to be understood on that level. Get away with you! The men in this film have been foolish in how they lived. Acknowledging this in a 3+ hour allegory while offering no contrition only serves to emphasise how unsympathetic they really are. 

In summary then, for all its amazing technology, its stellar cast, its director's pedigree and so on, the film has little new to say - and the new things it does say are pretty laughable.

It is criminally overlong too - but that should not come as a surprise. It is, after all, the Avengers: Endgame of gangster movies - a film designed by fans for fans, and one that is either satisfying or tedious depending on how you feel about the previous movies in the epic, sprawling, long-running franchise.

Just don't hang about for the end-of-credits teaser for the next one - although I read somewhere online that for The Irishman 2 they are going to bring Marlon Brando back from the dead to play Galactus. 

It's gonna be lit! 

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