Opportunity plays no favorites when it comes to right and wrong; it simply presents itself, and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is there to answer its call. A mild-mannered truck driver from Philly, Frank has a penchant for taking the shortest path to a payday.
A fateful engine breakdown threatens to strand him at a small gas station when a quiet, well-dressed stranger (Joe Pesci) diagnoses the problem. Something about the man’s careful approach makes a lasting impression. This seemingly innocent interaction soon catapults Frank into the highest levels of Pennsylvania’s most notorious crime families and, along the way, exacts a cost that he regrets having paid.
This is a film with a pedigree that demands our attention. Director Martin Scorsese needs no introduction. His body of work boasts no fewer than a half-dozen masterpieces. His main cast of De Niro, Pesci and Al Pacino own 4 Oscar wins and 17 nominations between them. It’s also a grouping that stokes an imagination fired by the heat of The Godfather, Goodfellas, Raging Bull and, well, Heat.
Their combined efforts present us with a marathon mafioso memoir that takes us into the annals of greater Philadelphia’s organized crime scene. It’s an epic tale of power, greed, corruption and murder. Did I say murder? Murder is almost too harsh a term for what we see presented. The mafia’s efficiency and rapidity reduces this act to the level of mere afterthought, coupled with a gruesome front-page newspaper photo. The surprise is that Scorsese leverages this turnstile of death for comedic relief. We meet a new mobster. We’re informed that he’s killed later. We meet another mobster. Four more bullets to the head. We meet… You get the picture.
Scorsese’s treatment has the perfect look for the material. We’re effortlessly transported back to the periods covered. Every nostalgic scene is dipped in simple, yet vibrant dreamlike colors. Exacting set pieces complete the immersion for anyone who remembers their true-life counterparts. The one glaring exception is the purported setting of Philadelphia. It doesn’t look anything like Philadelphia, and the dialogue was clearly written by someone lacking the local vernacular.
The story is told through flashback sequences with present-day voice-overs from Frank. That choice is an unfortunate mistake. It immediately reminds us of Goodfellas, and the comparison does this film no favors on multiple fronts.
Pacino (legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa) and Pesci (Frank’s quiet friend, Russell Bufalino) are as bankable as ever in their performances. However, De Niro is handicapped by multiple unnecessary distractions. Why Scorsese didn’t cast different actors to portray the younger main players is a mystery. He instead opted for de-aging technology that fails miserably. None of the men end up looking younger, most notably Pesci. The effect is magnified every time that they’re shown with their younger families. De Niro’s artificial blue contacts, along with the de-aging, make him look like a CGI character. His movement in critical scenes also belies his true age. The combination continually ruins the illusion.
It’s also curious why Scorsese chose material that was so thoroughly mined in 1992’s Hoffa. The biggest difference is that this retelling purports to answer some long-missing details. To buy into that we need to believe Frank’s version of the story. Others who knew him say that his honesty is anything but a given, suggesting that he had every reason to embellish his part in an infamous legend. The story that we’re given does little to defuse this criticism. We’re never closer to Frank than when the film focuses on its tabloid elements. That’s also when the film is at its best. We’re never farther than when it tries to go deeper by delving into the personal costs of his choices. Unfortunately, that’s really where the director wanted to make the biggest impact.
What Scorsese ultimately delivers is a compelling piece of filmmaking that we all want to believe is among his best. Now and again, he gives us a taste of pure film magic, but only a taste. That’s hardly enough to sustain us on a journey that’s sometimes intriguing, sometimes beautiful, but way too long.