"As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
Based on the true story of gangster-turned-federal-witness Henry Hill, the movie provides a thorough overview of the history of American organized crime from a street-level perspective. These characters aren't grand high-ranking Mafiosos living luxurious, operatic lives and pulling the strings that will shape American history. The Godfather films had that angle covered well enough. Goodfellas is about the working stiff gangsters on the street, the men who provide the muscle and keep day-to-day operations running, stealing and unloading merchandise, bumping off troublemakers, and eventually working their way up to bolder heists. The picture begins in the 1950s, depicting the romanticism of crime that lured in young boys like Henry (the tough men in flashy suits raking in money hand over fist and burning through it just as quickly), and ends with the cocaine-fueled paranoia of the 1980s that eventually caused Henry to burn out and roll over on his former family.
The genius of the picture is all in Scorsese's filmmaking. The script is brilliantly structured and edited, but it's Scorsese's flashy directorial pyrotechnics that keep the story on track as it weaves through decades of plot developments and dozens of important characters. Everything about the film feels totally authentic down to the last period detail, and Scorsese plows through the narrative with a sense of burning immediacy. He uses filmmaking techniques that would cripple other movies and reworks them to make them his own. He gives us not one but two streams of voiceover narration from competing characters, each one crucial to providing perspective to the events. He routinely freeze-frames the action to allow the narration to fill in details, a device that would seem cheap if it weren't done so exactly right that the story really feels like it couldn't be told any other way.
And has any other director ever used period music as well as Scorsese? There are usually two competing schools when it comes to choosing classic songs for movie soundtracks. You've got the likes of Quentin Tarantino who picks songs because they sound cool and the rhythm propels his scenes to the right pace, or you've got the likes of P.T. Anderson and Richard Kelly who over-analyze the literal meaning of the lyrics and try to fit them to the content of their scenes. But Scorsese really drills down to the emotional truth of the songs, regardless of what the lyrics are saying or how incongruous the tempo fits to the action of the scene. Who would think to use Donovan crooning "Atlantis" as two thugs beat a man to death, or just a single line of Muddy Waters' blues classic "Mannish Boy" segueing into George Harrison's fizzy "What is Life" during a frantic, drugged-out race across town while avoiding police helicopters? And yet every song is perfectly placed and could not possibly work any better.
Goodfellas is an astounding movie. It has a hugely ambitious, engrossing story told with power, urgency, and no small amount of dark humor. Martin Scorsese's stylish direction always works in the service of that story, not just to show off. It's one of the best American films of the past few decades and only gets better the more times you watch it.
The HD DVD:
Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
Of all the movies released thus far on the HD DVD format, Goodfellas shows the least difference over its comparable DVD version. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD released in 2004 had a pretty good transfer for that format, but the movie's photographic style doesn't offer a whole lot of latitude for further improvement. Much of the film is dark and drab, without razor sharp imagery. Selected scenes, more so in the second half of the film than the first, are very detailed and benefit from the High Definition format, yet in direct comparison the DVD holds its own pretty well. Both discs have a scratch on the source elements at 1hr. 16min.
The Goodfellas HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie doesn't have a very showy sound mix, and the DD+ track sounds about the same as the regular Dolby Digital track on the DVD. Dialogue is very prominent, perhaps a bit too much so, but is reproduced clearly and intelligibly. The period songs offer some stereo dimensionality to the front soundstage, but the movie has little to no surround activity or deep bass. Gunshots have a little kick when needed, but many of the other sound effects are a bit thin. This is a satisfactory soundtrack that probably won't knock anyone's socks off.
Subs & Dubs:
All of the supplements from the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD appear to have carried over.