Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is, partly, a return to the crime films that made his name.
Here’s Robert De Niro alongside Harvey Keitel, recalling “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.” And De Niro with Joe Pesci make up the winning team that powered “Raging Bull,” “GoodFellas” and “Casino.”
Yet while those masterpieces were marked by a certain urban grittiness, as well as a kinetic, intoxicating sense of movement, “The Irishman” — opening in theaters on Friday before debuting on Netflix Nov. 27 — is more sober, melancholy and reflective.
It’s arguably closer to Scorsese’s faith-based trilogy, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Kundun” and “Silence,” asking the big question: What does it all mean?
When De Niro’s hitman Frank Sheeran squeezes the trigger at someone’s head, there’s no accompanying camera swoop of shock or victory. The act is cursory, dispassionate, stripped of implications.
Scorsese paces his immense, three-and-a-half-hour movie with an effortless, sure touch, incorporating a surprising amount of sprightly humor and small, touching moments.
Frank narrates his long tale as an old man from a rest home. Jumping around in time a bit, he details his early job as a union driver of meat delivery trucks.
He recounts his initial meeting with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), and how he begins skimming from his deliveries to please another powerful mobster, “Skinny Razor” (Bobby Cannavale).
He narrowly avoids jail thanks to a smooth union lawyer (Ray Romano), becomes a hitman for Bufalino, and is finally introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
It’s hard to believe, but it’s the first time Pacino and Scorsese have worked together in the 50 years of their respective careers; Pacino snarls, barks and chews up the scenery with a gusto not seen since “Scarface” or “Dick Tracy.”
Frank and Hoffa become close. Frank is promoted to union president, while Hoffa tangles with the Kennedys, goes to jail for a time and tries to regain control of the unions. Eventually, Hoffa’s pugnacity becomes a problem, and Frank is called in.
Frank is a largely passive character, following orders and going where the wind blows him. He pledges loyalty easily, and feels little moral confusion.
In one scene, Bufalino presents Frank with a symbolic ring, one of only three in their underworld circles. “Do you know how strong I just made you?” asks Bufalino. But in reality, strength fades.
In another key scene, Frank beats up a corner grocer, stomping on and breaking his hand, for daring to touch Frank’s young daughter Peggy. Peggy grows up into a young woman (Anna Paquin) who’s suspicious and afraid of her father.
Too late, Frank realizes he is unforgiven, that his path led him away from family as he struggled to get close to power. Finally, he’s left with neither.
Written by San Francisco State graduate Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”), “The Irishman” is based on Charles Brandt’s non-fiction book “I Heard You Paint Houses.” Though it interprets real-life events, it still feels like an intensely personal film for Scorsese.
Some have called it an “old man’s film,” in the way it looks back with wistful perspective and hard-won wisdom. That’s not an affront; “The Irishman” feels similar to Ingmar Bergman’s “Saraband,” Federico Fellini’s “Intervista,” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” (in which Scorsese appeared) and “Madadayo.”
Yet the movie rails against age. Its astonishing, seamless visual effects really make the actors look like their younger selves in flashbacks.
In the end, the movie is a good way from finding peace or acceptance. It sees Frank’s lot in life as unfair, ironic, unfinished.
With this masterpiece, Scorsese shows he’s not ready to go gentle into that good night. He proves that this old bull can still rage.
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Running time: 3 hours, 29 minutes