Still got it!
A new American classic.
A de-aged Robert De Niro takes centre stage in Martin Scorsese’s muscular, melancholy mob drama.
You’ve seen it mean and mohawked; raging and rouletted. You’ve seen it clean-cut and cut up; burnt, bloody and bedevilled. You’ve seen it mad-eyed and monocled; black-and-white and black-and-blue. You’ve seen it shark-like and stoned; Mary Shelley-ed and silver-lined. But you haven’t seen Robert De Niro’s face quite like this.
In Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, one of the best mugs in the business is given a high-grade makeover courtesy of VFX supervisor Pablo Helman and his team at Industrial Light & Magic. De Niro stars as Irish-American labour union official and part-time contract killer Frank Sheeran, whose dealings with notorious Pennsylvanian crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, acting like he’s never been away) are recounted here in extensive flashback, requiring the 76-year-old actor to play the same character in his late twenties, mid fifties and early eighties. We’ve always known Bobby’s got range, but this is something else entirely.
Hollywood has been dabbling with this technique for some time now, with mixed results achieved by early adopters X-Men: The Last Stand, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron: Legacy. (Incidentally, De Niro has gone under the digital knife once before, while squaring off against Sylvester Stallone’s rival Pittsburgh brawler in 2013’s low-cal-Rocky twofer, Grudge Match.) But the hype surrounding Scorsese’s long-awaited return to the mob movie fold, coupled with his reputation both as a staunch custodian of cinema culture and an uncompromising traditionalist, has placed this cutting-edge youthification process under increased scrutiny.
Scorsese has even spoken of his own initial skepticism, the director going so far as to reenact the Christmas party scene from Goodfellas – originally filmed when De Niro was 47 – in order to convince the cast, crew and himself. The experiment worked, but Scorsese wasn’t fully satisfied. He knows as well as anyone that the technology, irrespective of any advances made since The Irishman went into development back in 2007, will never completely fool an audience – especially one already well acquainted with the primary test subject.
It bears repeating that De Niro’s face has been a fixture of American cinema for more than half a century. Down the years we’ve become intimately familiar with those expressive chestnut eyes, and know exactly how it feels to be fixed by that stern, silent glare. We know that broad, squinty smile; that unmistakable, much-mimicked frown. Hell, I probably know that mole better than half my extended family.
The point is, we’ve witnessed De Niro in his irrepressible prime, and watched him grow old gradually and gracefully for the most part (cf Dirty Grandpa). The real question as far as the The Irishman is concerned is not whether it’s possible to make him look young again but whether he can still act young. Due to its self-reflective narrative structure, we spend a significant portion of The Irishman’s near 200-minute runtime carefully studying De Niro’s de-aged face – skin smoothed, hairline restored, eyes turned a brilliant shade of blue – and the experience is at once poignant and uncanny in unexpected ways.
De Niro remains a fine actor, and it’s mightily impressive to see him carry such a heavy dramatic load looking, moving and sounding like a man half his actual age. But there’s no getting around the fact that he’s not the live-wire presence he once was. Still, the grim inevitability of Sheeran’s drawn-out demise is by no means intended as an analogy for De Niro’s late-career malaise. This immaculately-crafted tale of power, corruption and lies, told from the perspective of an elderly, less-than-reliable narrator reckoning with a lifetime of regrets, speaks to a greater universal truth.
Whatever path we choose in life – regardless of our successes and failures – we all meet the same fate, one way or another. It doesn’t matter who you are: as long as you’re breathing you’re afraid of dying. Seeing De Niro miraculously returned to a state of youthful vigour not only brings back memories of all those sensational moments in Mean Streets, The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas et al, it serves as a sobering reminder of our own mortality.
Per Charles Brandt’s 2004 biography ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ (mob speak for soliciting someone to carry out a hit) and Steven Zaillian’s adapted screenplay, Sheeran was a veteran of World War Two, a high-ranking member of the Teamsters union, a husband and a father. He claimed to have participated in the slaughter of German POWs, and that he knew who really shot JFK. Yet his legacy is ultimately defined by his relationship to union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, served with an extra scoop of gusto), whose disappearance in August 1975 Sheeran is widely believed to have been responsible for.
When De Niro is gone, it won’t feel really like it because we’ll still have Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta and Rupert Pupkin and the rest. Sheeran, meanwhile, having lived long enough to see himself become the villain, will continue to live on in infamy. Sometimes the grave is the only place a man can go to find solace. The existential fear at the heart of The Irishman, then, is not of growing old or being forgotten, but of not being allowed to die.
Published 3 Nov 2019
Still got it!
A new American classic.
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