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'The Irishman' review: Martin Scorsese's exciting, nostalgic wiseguy reunion

Al Pacino, right, in Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman."

Al Pacino, right, in Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman." Credit: NETFLIX/Niko Tavernise

PLOT The story of a mob hitman and his involvement with the 1975 disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

CAST Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino

RATED R (strong violence and language)

LENGTH 3:29

PLAYING AT IFC Center, Belasco Theatre and The Landmark at 57 West in Manhattan. Premieres on Netflix Nov. 27.

BOTTOM LINE A late-life mobster epic from Martin Scorsese, brimming with humor, poignancy and, of course, bloodshed.

The boys are back, substantially older but no less prone to mayhem, in Martin Scorsese's wiseguy epic "The Irishman." It's the director's first collaboration with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci since "Casino" almost 25 years ago, and his first ever with an actor who has bafflingly escaped his orbit, Al Pacino. Throw in a brief Harvey Keitel, a star of Scorsese's breakout film "Mean Streets" from 1973, and you've got a mob-movie supergroup the likes of which we may never see again.

There's an appealing mix of nostalgia and excitement in this cinematic reunion tour, which sees De Niro effortlessly playing the title role of Frank Sheeran, a real-life Irish-American who joined the East Coast mob after World War II. Pesci is the world-weary crime boss Russell Bufalino, while Pacino huffs and puffs marvelously as none other than Jimmy Hoffa, the charismatic Teamsters leader who mysteriously vanished in 1975. Written by Steven Zaillian from Charles Brandt's book "I Heard You Paint Houses," which details Sheeran's involvement in Hoffa's disappearance, "The Irishman" spans more than 50 years and uses digital technology to turn back the clock on its septuagenarian cast. (The nearly imperceptible de-aging effects come from Industrial Light & Magic.)

If it all sounds like familiar Scorsese territory, that's intentional. "The Irishman" feels like the director's attempt to fill in and flesh out the themes of loyalty and betrayal that have informed his most famous films, notably his 1990 classic "Goodfellas." What sets "The Irishman" apart is the ruminative mood that seeps into Scorsese's usual point-blank violence. As Sheeran ages and the ghosts he's created begin to haunt him, "The Irishman" begins to feel something like Clint Eastwood's "The Unforgiven" — a look back at a life, an era and a cinematic genre all at once. Unexpectedly, there's also more humor than usual here, as Scorsese gently pokes fun at the very mob movie cliches — nicknames, untimely deaths, tacky weddings — that he helped create. 

You could make a long list of probable Oscar nods here, including production design (many of the mid-century period scenes were filmed on Long Island) and editing (by Scorsese's longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker). The standouts are clearly De Niro, as a man clinging to a code of silence, and Pesci, playing what feels like an older version of Tommy DeVito, the violent jack-in-the-box role that earned him an Oscar in "Goodfellas." Their performances are riveting, full of mystery, monstrosity and human frailty.

Despite its three-and-a-half-hour running time, "The Irishman" never drags — not even for a second. Like the colorful, chaotic lives it chronicles, it feels like it's over in the blink of an eye.

FOUR MORE

Joe Pesci's career – a mix of mainstream comedies and now-classic dramas – has already resulted in at least one Oscar. Could another for "The Irishman" be on the way? Here's a short sample of the actor's oeuvre:

HOME ALONE (1990) As a burglar who invades a house occupied by a clever kid, Pesci basically serves as Wile E. Coyote to Macaulay Culkin's Roadrunner for two hours. It's Pesci's highest-grossing film, with $285 million.

GOODFELLAS (1990) "What do you mean, I'm funny?" Pesci's friendly-to-murderous rant as mobster Tommy DeVito is surely one reason he won the Oscar for supporting actor. His acceptance speech is one of the shortest on record: "It was my privilege. Thank you."

CASINO (1995) Pesci re-teamed with Scorsese for this crime drama, which received mixed reviews at the time but has since grown in critical stature. Pesci played Nicholas "Nicky" Santoro, a made man with mounting legal problems.

THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006) Robert De Niro directed his old pal Pesci – in a small part -- in this espionage drama. It marks one of Pesci's very few film appearances following his 1999 "retirement" from acting. — RAFER GUZMAN

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