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The Irishman

Year: 2019
Production Co: Tribeca Productions
Studio: Netflix
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Steve Zaillian
Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons, Lucy Gallina

No matter how many Hugos, Wolves of Wall Street or Silences Scorsese makes, we'll forever equate him with New York mobsters of the 50s, 60s and 70s like we do George Romero and zombies or George Lucas and Star Wars.

And it seems he leaned into that expectation wholeheartedly here, serving up a Grand Unified Theory of everything we love about Scorsese movies, not only from the kinetic camerawork to the iconic period music but in casting every big name we associate with crime cinema. If it's not exciting enough he's working with original muse in Robert De Niro or convinced Joe Pesci out of retirement, he's recruited another titan of the genre in Al Pacino.

And because it's his take on the unholy alliance between the union movement and organised crime, the short logline is that it's Scorsese's take on what happened to infamous teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) the vast web of crime, lies, political favours and money that surrounded it. It even reaches as far as the US presidency, referring to the support Hoffa lent Kennedy many think got him elected. Though he doesn't allude to it here, it'd be great to hear his opinion on whether the Mob killed both or either Kennedy.

And it's all told through the human lens of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a former truck driver who's recruited into the upper echelons of the Mob, eventually becoming Hoffa's permanent protection and enforcer. In the parlance of the world depicted, he paints houses (a euphemism for 'kills people' that comes from the book about Sheeran's life the script is based on).

His way in is through boss Russ Buffalino (Pesci), for whom Sheeran does odd jobs roughing up and whacking people who stand in the way of the Mob's business interests. Buffalino soon introduces Sheeran to Hoffa and before long the pair are almost inseparable, Sheeran sleeping in Hoffa's hotel rooms, Hoffa becoming a kindly Uncle to Sheeran's cute daughter Peggy, etc.

Hoffa is unimaginably powerful, but he still treads on toes all over the underworld, putting Sheeran in the unenviable position of feeling like the man's brother but knowing that if he doesn't reign himself in, Buffalino will order his killing any day. It doesn't help that hothead union boss Tony Pro (Stephen Graham) is more the kind of personality the Mob wants running the Teamsters, and is ready to challenge Hoffa's authority at any provocation.

Like all Scorsese's movies, The Irishman is mostly about men and secret men's business with wives, girlfriend and other female characters mere set dressing or foil for men's motivations. So it's refreshing to see at least one of the girls get a real arc in the character of Peggy.

Played by Lucy Gallina as a little girl and Anna Paquin as a teen and grown woman, Peggy never shines to Russ no matter how hard he tries, but the bond her and Hoffa have is gorgeous and finally heartbreaking. She also gives Frank his ultimate legacy when – convinced he had something to do with Hoffa's disappearance – she cuts off all contact with him, giving him his biggest regret as he narrates the story as an old man in a home, all his former associates and colleagues long since dead.

To ask whether it's a good movie is fairly redundant. Scorsese doesn't know how to make anything other than great movies, and it feels like his Once Upon a Time In America, like he's been practising for this three hours epic his entire career. The acting, staging, period design and everything else is a thrill to watch.

What's just as big, pivotal to the industry and impossible to ignore is the studio and moviemaking politics behind the whole project. At $160m, it wouldn't have existed without Netflix footing the bill, so after the inevitable fuss and hoopla about theatrical distribution and the cinematic experience it's kind of a moot point. Did enough new subscribers sign up to justify the cost of production, in the same way we think of audiences buying tickets at the box office to pay for a theatrical movie?

Being Netflix we'll probably never know, and it hardly matters. It's a very clear message to the industry and artists like Scorsese – the company's pockets so far are bottomless, and it will spend any sum for the right thing from the right person, cementing market perception as being about prestige rather than just volume.

It does however reveal kind of an irony in the hot water Scorsese found himself in recently by saying Marvel movies weren't cinema – if the streaming revolution wasn't in full swing he never would have made it, and Netflix aren't really interested in cinema screens or theatrical runs except to fulfil awards quotas or give nods to the hallowed cinema experience. It's made spare change in a few token theatrical runs but almost everybody will be watching it on their iPad or TV.

Also impossible to ignore is the much talked-about de-aging technology employed. Pacino doesn't appear in a single scene without the digital years taken off, it doesn't look like Pesci has either, and De Niro spends about 80 percent of the movie like it (including one scene as a World War II GI in his 20s).

The very first frames of him driving a truck down a rural highway gave me pause – he has the same dead-eyed pallor everybody always talked about in The Polar Express – but from then on I forgot I was watching visual effects. The de-aging is as seamless to the lighting, environment and performances as you could hope for and if Captain Marvel or the rest of the MCU hadn't convinced you it was a viable tool, this will.

All of which lends the film its second big irony. Considering those films were the first big promoters of the method, they no doubt led to a lot of development in the techniques and software Scorsese employed here.

It feels like the culmination of something, not just a Scorsese movie, and it leaves you wondering what else he can say in this genre.

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