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Irishman (Criterion Collection), The

The Criterion Collection // R // November 24, 2020
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by William Harrison | posted December 22, 2020 | E-mail the Author


I had sky-high hopes for Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, an adaptation of Charles Brandt's "I Heard You Paint Houses." As I had done before the release of Scorsese's Shutter Island, I decided to plow through the source material before the film hit theaters, or in this case, Netflix. Brandt's novel is a dense, fascinating account of the life of Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, who purportedly confessed to the author his involvement in the death of Jimmy Hoffa. Brandt, a former homicide detective and prosecutor, gleaned a great deal of information from an aging Sheeran during their several years of friendship. Since that book was published in 2004, Brandt was able to compile further collaborative evidence to support Sheeran's confession that he shot Hoffa while working for the Bufalino crime family, and that material is included in the most recent edition of the book. The idea that Scorsese was adapting this book was interesting enough on its face, and the film version has been in the works since 2007. The Irishman also marks the highly anticipated collaboration of trio Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to shoot the Irishman and, frankly, steals the show. The amazing pedigree behind and in front of the camera earns heightened expectations, and I am pleased to report that The Irishman is an excellent gangster epic that earns a place among the director's top films.

Bookended with scenes of an elderly Sheeran (De Niro) recounting his life from a nursing home, The Irishman quickly flashes back to 1950s Philadelphia, where Sheeran works as a delivery truck driver. After he begins skimming from the trucks and reselling to a local gangster, Sheeran goes on trial for theft. Union attorney Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) earns Sheeran an acquittal, then introduces him to his cousin, Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. Sheeran proves his worth to the mob and begins "painting houses" - contract killing - for Bufalino. He is soon introduced to Hoffa (Pacino), head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and financially tied to the crime family, who is struggling to fend off an up-and-coming Teamster, Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Hoffa is enraged when John F. Kennedy, who was backed by Bufalino and other mobsters, is elected president, as Kennedy's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, forms a "Get Hoffa" to target organized crime and Hoffa's illicit business exploits. Sheeran grows close to Hoffa and his family but is thrust into an uncomfortable battle between Hoffa and Bufalino when Hoffa begins disrespecting other mob and Teamsters leaders. This friction ultimately leads Sheeran to a house in Detroit, where he is commanded by the crime family to murder his friend.

Expertly acted and directed, with a sprawling, decades-long narrative, The Irishman is an enthralling gangster epic that complements Scorsese favorites Goodfellas and Casino. Those expecting The Irishman to be exactly like those films, particularly Goodfellas, with its rampant energy and frequent humor, may leave disappointed. This film represents an older Scorsese, and his cast has aged gracefully alongside him. Much has been said about the digital effects used to de-age the cast to match certain eras of their lives. This technique has not been universally lauded, but I found it utterly convincing. The real De Niro lies somewhere closer to the Sheeran of the bookend scenes, but the frequent stretches with younger looking De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are totally believable. There is none of the dead-eyed creepiness that plagues effects of a similar nature in older films, and it is clear that the film's reported $200-million-plus budget is all on screen.

At 209 minutes, The Irishman is a true epic. As with any film of a similar length, much has been made of the film's run time. The huge budget and lengthy running time are two of the reasons why Netflix stepped up to the plate to finance this project when other studios would not. In my eyes, there are really no extraneous scenes. Sure, the film is long and sometimes reflective, but I can't think of a single scene off the top of my head that felt superfluous. The source material is interesting and quite dense, though some of Brandt's writing feels a bit unpolished. Steven Zaillian's screenplay focuses less on the union battles of the book and more on the Sheeran/Hoffa/Bufalino triangle, which makes for great, cinematic filmmaking. The Teamsters stuff is there, sure, but viewers interested in that angle should check out the novel, which goes extremely in depth on the innerworkings of the union under Hoffa.

As expected, the performances are excellent across the board. De Niro plays Sheeran as he was portrayed in the book. The man is intense and ruthless in his mob work, admitting he has little regret other than the strained relationships with his family. He also is pensive later in life, and serves as a stabilizer to Hoffa during their early friendship. This is not a showy performance from De Niro, and this subtlety is what the film requires. Pacino is allowed to go farther over the top, also necessary when portraying the larger-than-life Hoffa. It feels like the now 80-year-old actor is having a damn good time here, and Pacino's energy throughout is contagious. Pesci masterfully plays the reserved, powerful Bufalino. There is none of the "funny guy" schtick from Goodfellas in this performance, but Pesci absolutely steals every scene he is in. The man is just magnetic; the scene of an elderly Bufalino being wheeled into a prison hospital brought tears to my eyes. For better or worse, these were men who lived and died by a code. The Irishman also reminds us that these actors and director Scorsese will not be around forever. While I hope they each make dozens more great films, especially collaborative efforts, this is a seminal work for this legendary crew. Supporting cast members, particularly Romano, Harvey Keitel as gangster Angelo Bruno and Anna Paquin, as Sheeran's daughter Peggy, are excellent. Paquin's silent performance is most impressive in that without dialogue, the actress is able to illustrate Sheeran's greatest regrets.

The Hoffa killing, especially the execution and what led to it, is fascinating stuff, particularly if you believe Sheeran. There is also a powerful undertone of deep shame and regret on his part. This was a man forced by the mob to be directly involved in killing his friend. Bufalino notes that he had to make Sheeran part of the thing, otherwise Sheeran would never have let it happen. Both the film and book highlight a fascinating duplicity in Sheeran. The man is a ruthless killer who oftentimes is downright likeable. The Irishman also spotlights a fascinating era in history when the government struggled to stop the ubiquitous crime families that operated with few checks and balances outside internal struggles. All this makes for a very entertaining epic. Standout scenes include Sheeran's disgraceful phone call to Hoffa's unknowing widow (Welker White), the Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night sequence, and the tick-tock suspense of the Hoffa murder. As expected for a Scorsese epic, there are plenty of interesting transitions; pleasing, period-appropriate musical selections; and brutal, realistic violence. I encourage viewers to experience The Irishman as I did. While my first viewing was on Netflix, I turned off my phone, dimmed the lights, and let this Scorsese epic completely draw me in. The Irishman is fine entertainment, with excellent performances, that stands alongside Scorsese's most celebrated films.



Released by the Criterion Collection on home media, The Irishman is presented with a 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image that I found notably better than the quality when streaming on Netflix. Yes, a 4K Ultra HD release would have been nice given the native 4K source, but Criterion has yet to adopt the newer-generation format. What we do get is an excellent presentation, with abundant fine-object detail, texture and depth. Shot both digitally and on film, the entire presentation is filmic and lifelike. Other than some likely intentional softness in the bookend scenes, the image is crisp and clear. Close-ups reveal abundant fine-object detail and texture. Wide shots are razor-sharp and deep. Blacks are inky, shadow detail is abundant, and colors are beautifully saturated. Contrast and highlights are spot-on. Other than some very minor compression artifacts in a few scenes, this is a top-tier HD transfer.


The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which I sampled as a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix, is also excellent. The track supports the dialogue-heavy film with ease. This conversation is absolutely life-like, whether presented from the center or surround channels. When the frequent soundtrack selections unspool, they are treated to a wonderfully deep, expansive presentation. Ambient and a few action effects make full use of the surrounds, and the LFE provides frequent, subtle support. English SDH subtitles are included.


This two-disc set is packed in a digipack, which folds out to reveal internal artwork and a multi-page booklet with an essay and technical information. As expected from the Criterion Collection, the included supplements offer something of value rather than EPK fluff. Making The Irishman (36:10/HD) is an excellent production diary that offers on-set footage and remarks from the cast and crew. A Roundtable Conversation (18:59/HD) between Scorsese and his three leads offers interesting banter between the legendary actors and some exciting nuggets about the film. Gangsters' Requiem (21:27/HD) is a visual essay from critic Farran Smith Nehme that discusses The Irishman's place amid Scorsese's filmography. In Anatomy of a Scene (5:05/HD), viewers get a closer look at the production of the "Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night" sequence, and The Evolution of De-Aging as Seen in The Irishman (12:55/HD) is a piece about the cutting-age visual effects. Finally, you get two Archival Interviews (23:09 total/HD) of the real Sheeran and Hoffa and two Trailers (4:28 total/HD).


The Criterion Collection has released an excellent edition of Martin Scorsese's gangster epic The Irishman, which tells the fascinating story of mobster Frank Sheeran and his involvement in the death of Jimmy Hoffa. A sprawling, entertaining film with excellent performances and production design, The Irishman is presented here with superb A/V specs and complementary bonus content. Highly Recommended.

William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.

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