NEW YORK – Massive in its scale – 209 minutes with no intermission – massive in cost at $180 million and massively awaited, Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic “The Irishman” was finally unveiled yesterday as the opening film for the 57th New York Film Festival.
Inspired by the disappearance and probable murder of ex-Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa in July 1975, “The Irishman” reunites Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.
It was De Niro, 76, who liked Charles Brandt’s “The Irishman” novel and plays Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who claimed to have killed Hoffa in Michigan and, years earlier, New York mobster Joey Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.
Al Pacino, 79, co-starring with De Niro for only the second time in their lengthy careers, plays bullheaded Hoffa. Pesci, 76, who starred opposite De Niro in Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” was lured out of retirement to play Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino, a mentor to the Irishman and the Pennsylvania don who orders the hit on Hoffa.
One observer quipped, “Maybe they should have called it ‘Oldfellas.’”
The special effects house ILM used new technology to de-age the stars as the story retreats in time, technology that used facial recognition techniques and not the usual metal hat and electronic dots attached to the actor’s face.
“The Irishman” plays for nearly its first hour before Hoffa is even mentioned in a saga that begins in 1940s WWII, progresses through the ’50s and, more crucially to the Mob, the JFK election campaign, the Bay of Pigs and Robert Kennedy’s crusade as attorney general to bust Hoffa and bring down the Teamsters.
With gangland executions in the dozens, “The Irishman” mines laughs with its body count and follows De Niro’s Sheeran into an elderly assisted living facility in the late ’90s.
At the early morning press screening, following a cheering, clapping, enthusiastic reception, Scorsese, 76, and his three male stars held a Q&A.
The film repeatedly notes how time has diminished Hoffa’s celebrity status so that few under the age of 50 have any idea who he was. Yet Pacino, Scorsese revealed, was so intent on capturing the real guy, between takes he would listen to tapes of Hoffa talking.
Asked what this 20th century story has to say to today’s audience, Scorsese said, “People change in their needs. When it’s about power, power erases everything else, including money. And as you know once they get it, they’ll do everything to keep the power.”
“The Irishman” opens theatrically in Boston and elsewhere Nov. 1.