VOD film review: GoodFellas
James R | On 27, Nov 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” So begins Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece that is GoodFellas, a gangster movie about the very appeal of gangster movies. Blisteringly violent, brutally beautiful and impossibly lavish, it’s an epic that follows the rise and fall of a group of mobsters – and shoots through that romanticised legacy with a dark streak of irony.
Speaking that iconic line is Henry (Liotta), whose climb through the ranks of organised crime forms the backbone of the story. As a kid, he’s not drawn to being the President, but to the more tangible power of the local boogie men, who have clout and stand above a neighbourhood of nobodies, able to flout the law and do what they want without repercussions. Even today, when the line between criminals and some politicians has arguably become thin, the pull of a life of crime is a disturbing thing to witness in a young boy – and there’s no doubt from the self-aware voiceover (complete with nasty freeze-frame) that Henry’s decision to pursue an illegal lifestyle will end up badly.
Shopping that lifestyle are a trio of dangerous men: De Niro as Jimmy Conway, Joe Pesci as hotheaded sidekick, Tommy DeVito, and Paul Sorvino as the quiet but no less deadly Paulie. Next to them, Liotta’s career-defining role has a wide-eyed youth that whips us right along with him, as he’s immersed in their glitzy existence.
Scorsese taps into that live-wire with every inch of his film, from the banging jukebox soundtrack to the vibrant editing – when Henry enters a nightclub with a confident, steady swagger, we join him in an unstoppable single take that’s in step with his attitude. The fact that Scorsese improvised the sequence due to practical shooting obstacles only reinforces the organic nature of his filmmaking and its perfect match for the material; this is a master of the craft working at the top of his game.
The rest of the cast are just as magnetic, with De Niro’s stoic but commanding presence balanced out by Pesci’s unexploded landmine of a performance. When Tommy starts to demand in what way he’s funny, the bonhomie rapidly fades and the shark-like truth comes to the fore; for all its whip-smart presentation and lively surface, GoodFellas is not a comedy.
Based on Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi, a biopic of Henry Hill, the result is a descent into a hellish trap of ego, greed and grudges, where executions and betrayals are as common as speeches about loyalty and family. Where other films might treat things with the seriousness of prestige drama, GoodFellas is heightened but never lofty, lifting its characters up only to undermine them from beneath. The biting final act reminds us that for our antihero, there’s nothing worse than being an ordinary everyman.
The Irishman sees Scorsese revisit the moral consequences and hollow depravity of a gangster’s life, but with a sobriety and perspective that comes with age. GoodFellas sees Scorsese muse on the same themes but with energy rather than poignant, thoughtful ennui; it’s The Irishman’s louder, brasher cousin, and all the more gripping because of it. It won’t make you want to be a gangster, but it will make you want to re-watch it immediately.