Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have made nine films together. De Niro and Joe Pesci have made seven films together. De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese have collaborated on four films.
Raging Bull (1980) Not the first pairing of De Niro and Scorsese, but the first involving Pesci, who made a serious impression in his first big film. Usually it is Pesci who is the unhinged one, but De Niro’s Jake Lamotta is a sadistic beast. The pairing of De Niro and Pesci is dynamite, there is incredible screen chemistry.
This is not a gangster film, but features violent sociopaths like what you find in crime stories. It’s a riveting film, just hard to watch.
Goodfellas (1990) Perhaps the best gangster film ever. Yes, it is violent and Pesci is way over the top. De Niro is good, but so is everyone else in the film. This is a who’s who of tough guy actors. The film’s story is Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta.
The film is based on Nicolas Pileggi’s book on Henry Hill. Scorsese and Pileggi wrote the script which moves forward and backward, in typical Scorsese storytelling.
Hill goes to work for wise guy Paulie Cicero, how also employees Jimmy (De Niro) and Tommy (Pesci), who takes Hill under their wing. Later, Hill ventures out on his own, dealing with drugs, which Paulie has kept out of the business. Hill gets involved in using cocaine and Tommy’s paranoia gets the best of him, as they both make mistakes and earn the ire of Paulie. Jimmy is the most sane of the three, but after Hill turns informant, the days of Paulie’s reign are ending.
The film traces the journey of this crime family as times change and what used to be accepted rules of conduct that are no longer are important to the younger generation.
Casino (1995) A great look at the world of betting and crooked casino management in Las Vegas. Also based on a nonfiction book written by Pileggi. De Niro is Sam Rothstein, a professional gambler, who is recruited to run a casino in Las Vegas for the mob. The film traces his arrival through the end of mob’s involvement in the casino business as the corporations move in. De Niro starts out as the mild-mannered character, while Pesci is once again the unhinged one.
As the film goes on, De Niro’s character runs into political and personal problems that change his demeanor, as both his character and Pesci’s character fall out with the mob.
The Irishman (2019) Instead of Goodfellas, De Niro and Pesci are the Sunshine Boys. The film travels six decades in time, traveling back in time and jumping around to different decades. Interestingly, Scorcese and his cinematographer give each decade a specific look and visual texture. Widely known, part of the huge cost of the film went to special digital effects to help the characters realistically go from looking young to elderly. The budget was rumored to be from $150 million to $200 million.
A three hour film, that follows the life of mobster Frank Sheeran (De Niro), based on his life story, although the fiction was fictionalized. How much of the film is actually true is anyone’s guess. What you see is entertaining, especially the entire part of the film dealing with Jimmy Hoffa. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Pesci plays Philadelphia mob family boss Russell Bufalino who employs Sheeran, who carries out house painting for the mob, code for murder. Bufalino introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who goes to work for Hoffa as a body guard and eventually as union organizer and confidant, helping Hoffa after he exits prisons and attempts to get his union presidency back. As portrayed in the film, Hoffa begins to unravel, angering others in union management and the mob, and drawing unwanted attention to those involved. In the film, these actions lead directly to Hoffa’s disappearance and presumed murder.
Pacino has the juiciest role, certainly very flamboyant, owning most of the scenes he appears. Pesci is the calmest I have ever seen him in a film role. He does not yell or rant, yet the power his character holds is quite obvious. His biggest challenge is his wife’s continuous smoking. Rumor has it that Pesci was asked 50 times before he agreed to accept the role. De Niro’s character is a worker bee who carries out the orders of the bosses. He tries to please the colliding interests of the powerful men he serves. In the end, he has to choose.
De Niro and Scorsese wanted to make an aging gangster film for many years. The Godfather films did a variation of that premise, but De Niro wanted to accomplish that in one film. It literally took decades to arrive at not only the source material, but to find the time in their busy schedules to tackle this ambitious film.
The Sheeran character survives the gangster era and dies sadly from cancer, suffering the indignities of age and estranged from his family. The film pauses to tell the audience about the future demise of many of the characters, bloody deaths from the world they live. Is it better to go out with a car bomb or a pair of slugs to the head, a headline in the news; or to live a long and lonely existence completely ignored by the passing of time? Which is sadder?
Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci created four amazing films together, three of them about gangsters, but all with unforgettable characters. Coppola’s Godfather III, closed the book on the Corleone family, at least until someone remakes it. The Irishman almost closes the book on the gangster film genre.
When The Irishman first came out, I was ambivalent on whether to see it. I thought, here we go again, haven’t we seen all of this before? Well, the answer is, not exactly. The gangster genre turns off a lot of people, these are sociopaths or psychopaths engaging in violent acts, and visceral images. The Irishman has less violence and visceral moments than I anticipated. It is much heavier on the drama of the story and the conflict within the characters. It might not be as good as Goodfellas, but it is a very good film.