Martin Scorsese's latest gangster epic "The Irishman" is now streaming on Netflix and should still be in theaters around the country for the next few weeks.
The three hour, 30 minute movie follows the career of Teamsters Union executive Frank Sheehan (Robert De Niro), an Irish (meaning not Italian) tough guy who spends his life carrying out hits for the Mafia while he's simultaneously a close associate of Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
"The Irishman" may be Scorsese's final Mafia movie and the entire enterprise feels like he's saying goodbye to the genre that's carried him throughout his career with classic movies like "Mean Streets;" "Goodfellas;" "Casino;" "The Departed;" and "The Gangs of New York."
As for the controversial “de-aging” effects that Scorsese uses on De Niro, Pesci and Hoffman, they shock for a moment the first time you see them, but (at least in a movie theater) the strength of the performances and the story made the audience forget them as the film unfolded.
Ultimately, Sheehan's mentor and father figure is Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a Philly mob boss who introduces young Frank to upper management and recruits him to be a hitman.
Why is Frank Sheehan such a good mob soldier? Maybe it's his war service during World War II with the 45th Infantry. When the Army invaded Italy, Sheehan served 411 days in Italy at Salerno, Anzio (122 days there), Catania and in Sicily. He picked up enough of the Italian language to impress Russell.
Frank was also ordered to take German POWs into the forest and force them to dig their own graves before executing them. He knows it's a war crime but he's also happiest when following orders.
Frank tells Russell that he came away from the war with the attitude that "whatever happens, happens." He also learned that men who follow orders get rewarded.
Sheehan happily follows orders from both Bufalino and Hoffa over the next few decades at great cost to his family life and maybe his soul. The movie is framed by Frank Sheehan's lonely life in a nursing home as he tries to reconcile his past as death approaches.
Both Pesci and Pacino give much lower-key performances than you might expect and De Niro's understanding of the cost of aging is heartbreaking.
Did WWII war crimes create a hired killer? "The Irishman" suggests that Frank's military experiences prepped him for his future career but it never quite offers a definitive answer.
The military plot may seem like a fringe element when placed up against the big themes expounded and historical mysteries solved by the main plot, but Frank Sheehan's veteran status is crucial to his makeup and part of what makes "The Irishman" such an essential movie.