The Irishman (2019) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Biography, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 209 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Irishman has a lineup that you can’t argue with. It stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci (and Ray Romano) and is directed by Martin Scorsese. Did I mention that it’s three-and-a-half hours long? In this gangster film, which desperately tries to the mob-movie-to-end-all-mob-movies, World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) works his way into the local mob, controlled by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), becoming a hitman and befriending corrupt union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Is it worth investing those three-and-a-half hours into?

One of the most noteworthy of the behind-the-scenes tricks featured in The Irishman was the computer-generated de-aging done to make the actors look different ages at different points in their lives. I think this was successfully pulled off, and was probably necessary given the huge timeline this feature has to cover. Yes, this is one of the most epic-scale gangster pictures ever released, with the characters experiencing several major historical events that I won’t give away here. Despite this, some of the most entertaining moments in this flick are the comparatively smaller scenes that give the audience a slice of criminal life.

The Irishman is stuffed to the brim with content…perhaps too much. While most of the movie focuses on the three big leads, countless supporting characters come and go. Many (but not all) of the killings lack a certain gravity for this reason. It’s just another job to do. Maybe the story would’ve been served better in a mini-series format? Maybe not, I’m just throwing ideas out there.

It may have highly casual pacing, but I think The Irishman is worth checking out. It’s definitely a drama, but there are some funny scenes sprinkled in. The performances can’t be criticized, and the massive scope of the motion picture is impressive. It does border on the episodic, but many biopics do, so I suppose I can’t complain too much. The bottom line is that fans of the stars and the director will almost certainly end up satisfied. I can’t say I was as enthused with it as the critics were, but it still a gets a thumbs-up from me.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

1917 (2019) Review

Director: Sam Mendes

Genre(s): Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Hollywood doesn’t seem to make too many World War I films these days, but, once in a while, they crank out one that gets a thumbs-up from me. My favorite movie on the First World War so far is 2019’s 1917. During that horrendous conflict, two British soldiers on the Western Front, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with delivering a message across no-man’s-land to cancel a planned attack on the German lines that’s doomed to fail. It turns out that Blake’s brother, Joseph (Richard Madden), is one of the troopers who’s going to participate in the offensive, adding even more urgency to the proceedings.

1917 was shot in a way that makes it look like one, continuous take. It wasn’t actually one, big shot, but that doesn’t take away how meticul0us and detailed it all feels. So, does the one-take cinematography distract from the storytelling at all? I would say “not really,” even though such a “gimmick” could’ve easily made itself the focus of the picture. To the feature’s credit, the action moves along quite fluidly and the camerawork does not feel limiting. On a related note, the sets the filmmakers dealt with must’ve been absolutely massive.

Characterization here isn’t particularly detailed, but it’s enough to get the job done. It’s not hard to invest yourself emotionally with the situations that the main characters find themselves in on their journey across the wastelands of the Western Front (the only real flaw with 1917 is that landscape isn’t always as Hellish as it should be…there’s often too much grass). This is a film about war-time heroism that generally shies away from over-the-top displays of machismo. Of course, it’s not one-hundred-percent realistic, but it’s grounded enough to work properly.

While there certainly are action scenes and ferocious thrills to be found here, this isn’t quite the combat-heavy Saving Private Ryan (1998)-style treatment of the Great War that many expected. Still, I actually enjoyed it a tad more than that excellent motion picture, as I found 1917 to be tighter and more successful in its dealings with side characters. War movies as great as 1917 don’t come along often, so I highly recommend it. It’s more than just a director showing off his immense talent, it’s a dramatically satisfying and hair-raisingly intense experience. 1917 is simply outstanding.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Legionnaire (1998) Review

Director: Peter MacDonald

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, War

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

It may have the mandatory close-up of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ass, but Legionnaire is not your typical movie to feature the Muscles from Brussels. I sure don’t recall seeing any roundhouse kicks. Anyway, this film is about French boxer Alain Lefevre (Jean-Claude Van Damme) joining the French Foreign Legion in the 1920s to avoid the mob. He, of course, ends up serving in the Rif War in Morocco. It’s not the most original tale, but it’s a well-told story that kept my attention.

While primarily a war/action-adventure flick, Legionnaire features a satisfactory dramatic core. Jean-Claude Van Damme has an underappreciated knack for picking projects with nifty, simple, yet effective, emotional hooks. The characters here are mostly clear and easy to root for. The musical score by John Altman works well, and there’s only a minimum of romance.

All of those components are fine and dandy…but how’s the action? If you’re just here for the combat, then you probably won’t leave disappointed. The film’s action sequences, mainly battles between the French Foreign Legion and Moroccan rebels, are truly excellent. This picture was directed by Peter MacDonald, who also helmed Rambo III (1988), and his scenes of physicality here are almost as impressive as the ones in that Rambo flick. Van Damme is definitely in action hero mode here, but he’s not really an obnoxiously unrealistic one-man army.

On the flip side, Legionnaire is home to some of the most clich├ęd dialogue in movie history. If an original script is one of the primary things you look for in a film, please skip this one. However, if all you’re looking for is a war picture with reasonable drama and spectacular action set-pieces, Legionnaire is more-than-worth looking into. It’s much more epic in scope than your average JCVD feature and feels more grounded in reality. I like it quite a bit.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

White Heat (1949) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

When I think of the greatest acting performances I’ve seen in my life, James Cagney’s role as Cody Jarrett in White Heat is one of the first to spring to mind. In this truly great gangster classic, Jarrett confronts threats against his life from both inside and outside his crew of criminals. You see, he just robbed a train and the federal government wants him dead or behind bars, so they send an agent by the name of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to infiltrate Jarrett’s ranks. James Cagney’s made some good movies, but this is the best of the lot (well, at least of the ones I’ve seen).

Of course, it is Cagney’s beyond-superb performance as a psychotically-violent mobster who’s losing his grip on reality that stands out most when thinking about White Heat. It’s a shame that it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. You just can’t take your eyes off of it. However, this picture’s secret weapon is its taut script. The storytelling here is remarkably tight…remove one scene from the finished product and the whole thing would make no sense. It should probably be shown in filmmaking schools for this reason.

Between the tough-talking dialogue and the moments of action (which come rather frequently for a non-action film), you’ve got tons of iconic moments. Rewatching White Heat will have any viewer saying “oh, I love this scene” many times over. The various supporting characters are reasonably easy to keep track of and the Max Steiner musical score shines on a few occasions.

White Heat is frequently considered a film-noir, but I think of it more as a straight gangster flick, similar to those Cagney was making in the 1930s. Anyway, this thriller is a must-watch for fans of organized crime media. It has it all: an astounding central performance, a screenplay that never goes off on tangents, cold-blooded killings, an explosive finale, and more. Its appeal is not limited to Cagney aficionados.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) Review

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 158 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Guns of Navarone sets out to add a new legend to the long list of myths set in Greece. However, this one isn’t set in ancient times…it takes places during World War II. During that conflict, a team of Allied commandos is dispatched to the Greek island of Navarone (which doesn’t exist in real life) to sabotage two massive Nazi cannons there. A convoy of British warships is planning on sailing past Navarone to rescue some Allied soldiers about to be blitzkrieged by the German war machine, and the two guns at Navarone put them in severe danger.

Along with the previous year’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), this is one of those crucial action-adventure pictures that laid the groundwork for the modern incarnation of the genre. Now-common elements of those types of movies that can be found in The Guns of Navarone include: the impossible mission with a ticking clock, the hastily assembled team of quarreling professionals, bromance, bad guys being mowed down with relative ease, the stealing and wearing of enemy uniforms to blend in, girls with guns, reliance on special effects, the impenetrable fortress, the badass theme music, the traitor in the ranks, etc. This film was among the first to combine tropes like these all under one, impeccably-made roof.

So, this is a landmark feature…does it still hold up as superb entertainment today? I’d enthusiastically say “yes.” The aforementioned musical score from Dimitri Tiomkin is brilliant, the characters – played by a macho, all-star cast – are incredibly well-drawn (I’d pay good money to see a movie about them sitting down at dinner, talking over their respective days), and the action sequences are excellent (although the very best one is the one that takes place earliest in the runtime). The impressive screenplay provides several moral dilemmas for the characters to face, greatly deepening the picture.

The Guns of Navarone is a war/action-adventure flick with brains and balls. It helped write the rulebook for derring-do-flavored films (in fact, two of its actors – David Niven [who plays John Miller here] and Stanley Baker [who plays “Butcher” Brown] – were initially considered for the role of James Bond before it went to Sean Connery), and still holds up as one of the all-time great movies. Despite all of the gunfire and explosions, it’s best to think of it as a character-oriented piece to get maximum mileage out of it.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It isn’t often that you hear about states within the United States banning movies. However, this picture, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, was initially outlawed in Ohio thanks to its violence (extremely tame by today’s standards) and its fairly detailed depictions of potentially imitable crimes. The plot follows gangster Ralph Cotter’s (James Cagney) escape from the chain gang and his life of crime afterwards, which includes bringing in two crooked cops, Charles Weber (Ward Bond) and John Reece (Barton MacLane), onto his payroll. It’s not one of James Cagney’s very best, but it’s a nice change of pace.

Ol’ Cagney here plays one of his career’s most psychopathic characters. He doesn’t even have a mother character to show affection towards, like he does in The Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949). He’s a mean cuss who’ll pistol-whip you into submission if he suspects resistance. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye also probably has enough noirish touches for it to be considered a proper film-noir. The cinematography isn’t quite moody enough to look like a stereotypical noir, but it still might fit the bill for 1940s-1950s crime-thriller aficionados.

Unfortunately, this feature almost hits a brick wall at times, due to a romantic subplot between Cagney’s character and Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter). It sometimes feels like something out of a completely different film. I’m not sure this subplot could’ve been completely removed from the final cut without leaving plot holes in the story, but it definitely should’ve been written out of the screenplay. There’s also bookend scenes in a courtroom that may spoil who lives and who dies throughout the course of the flick.

Yeah, it’s somewhat talky at times, but Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is worth recommending because of the Cagney factor. He’s one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood history, even when playing a cold-blooded killer. If you can find a copy, I’d say “watch it.” Also, what’s up with the hat that Vic Mason (Rhys Williams) wears? I thought only cartoon characters wore whoopee caps.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Underworld (1927) Review

Directors: Josef von Sternberg and Arthur Rosson

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Underworld was one of the first feature-length gangster films, and possibly the first of its kind to be told from the criminals’ point-of-view. This silent movie is about mob boss “Bull” Weed’s (George Bancroft) troubles when his alcoholic lawyer, “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook) starts to fall for his moll, “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Yeah, I know that the plot description makes this one sound like an uninteresting romance picture, but, trust me, this crime-drama is worth watching.

Aided by a swift 80-minute runtime, Underworld features pulpy dialogue that helped it win an Oscar for Best Writing (Original Story) at the first ever Academy Awards. Also of note is its proto-noirish cinematography that emphasizes shadows. The number of characters in the flick is kept relatively small, so it’s not exactly hard to keep track of everybody.

Physical action in this feature, while dynamic, is fairly limited until the finale. The climatic shootout is a real surprise, being more exciting than the final gunfights of many sound-era mobster movies of the following decade – the 1930s. I’m not exaggerating. It brings both the drama and action elements of the film together on a strong note.

While Underworld doesn’t quite rank up there with my all-time favorite gangster pictures, thanks to romance occasionally running away with the plot, it’s still a startlingly good entry into the organized crime subgenre, especially when its age is taken into account. It begins and ends with a bang, and has some of the best directing that I’ve seen from the silent era. Fans of early mob cinema need to watch it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.