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‘The Irishman’ a glorious saga of a notorious killer

Martin Scorsese’s epic return to the underworld with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino is well worth your three hours.

A Philadelphia mob boss (Joe Pesci, left) takes on a small-time crook (Robert De Niro) as his protege in “The Irishman.”
Netflix

My only complaint about Martin Scorsese’s epic and masterful American crime saga “The Irishman” is that 209-minute running time.

Too short.

I would have been thrilled to remain immersed in this brutal, bloody, brilliant, sprawling, elegiac, beautifully detailed story for at least another hour or two.

The viewing time flies by as Scorsese delivers one pitch-perfect sequence after another, with great performances from a trio of legends: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, who would occupy three of the four spots on my Mount Rushmore of mob movie greats from the last half-century. (We’ll save talk re: the fourth slot for another day.)

As was the case with “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” Scorsese relies on a non-fiction book about real-life characters and events as a springboard to a fictionalized and stylized re-telling of the tale. In this instance it’s Charles Brandt’s “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which is a reference to a code term for carrying out a hit job.

The “paint” is the blood that spatters on the walls. And if you say, “I do my own carpentry, too,” that means you’ll pull the trigger yourself, rather than farming out the job.

Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is a World War II combat veteran who by the 1950s was painting houses and doing his own carpentry.

Sheeran is also the man who killed infamous Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, at least according to claims made by the now-deceased Sheeran in Brandt’s book.

There’s vigorous debate about the veracity of Sheeran’s story, but his version of events provides rich material for screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“ “Awakenings,” “Schindler’s List,” “Gangs of New York”) to deliver yet another nomination-worthy adaptation of a real-world story, and for Scorsese to shine a light on some essential truths about the death grip lock between the mob and the Teamsters back in the day.

Not to mention how glorious it is to see septuagenarians De Niro, Pacino and Pesci (who has all but disappeared from the big screen for the last 20 years) all killing it in major roles like it’s 1995.

In the opening scene of “The Irishman,” we hear the 1956 doo-wop classic “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins during a tracking shot in which we see more than one symbol of the Catholic faith. And we meet De Niro’s mob hitman Frank Sheeran, who will provide the voice-over narration.

Scorsese’s nods to his own crime-movie filmography (and the religious references found in many if not most of his films) couldn’t be more obvious — but the context in which we get our first glimpse of Sheeran is a clear indication we’re in for a long-form narrative a bit more contemplative, a little less splashy in the telling than “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

We might even get a touch of existential gangsterism.

The main storyline of “The Irishman” covers a period from the 1950s to the 1970s. Thanks to the impressive (but still unsettling) digital technology, we buy De Niro and Pesci and Pacino as characters in their 40s and 50s, because they absolutely and convincingly look the part.

(Interesting how Scorsese famously condemned CGI-enhanced superhero movies but has embraced this de-aging technology, without which he wouldn’t have been able to cast those Hall of Fame stars.)

De Niro’s Frank is a small-time crook turned hitman who becomes the prized protégé of Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci).

As memorable as Pesci was playing volatile psychopaths in “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” this might be his finest work. The measured, civilized, low-key Russell is more terrifying than a hothead who will fly off the handle at any moment. When Russell is upset or disappointed, you can feel your blood go cold. You’re effed.

With Russell as his guardian angel/devil, Frank gets a plum union appointment and eventually becomes the trusted right-hand man to none other than Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the legendary head of the Teamsters. Pacino doesn’t achieve the same kind of physical verisimilitude Jack Nicholson had in 1992’s “Hoffa,” but he creates a memorable portrayal of a charismatic, short-fused, two-fisted union leader whose refusal to quit or back down fueled his rise to power — and led to his downfall.

This image released by Netflix shows Al Pacino, right, in a scene from “The Irishman.”
Al Pacino (right) plays Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa in “The Irishman.”
Netflix

For years, Frank is the conduit maintaining a fragile, corrupt peace between the mob and Hoffa. But when the arrogant Hoffa oversteps certain boundaries one last time, Frank is charged with the assignment of taking him out, once and for all.

As Scorsese (and his longtime editor, the one and only Thelma Schoonmaker) nimbly navigate the time-hopping narrative, a key storyline involves a long road trip from Philly to Detroit, with Frank driving and his mentor Russell in the front passenger seat, and their respective wives, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) in the back seat, kibitzing and constantly calling for smoke breaks. (Russell won’t allow anyone to smoke in the car.)

The reason to for the trip is twofold: They’re going to a wedding, and oh yeah, Russell has arranged for Frank to meet up with Hoffa — a meeting that’s not going to go Hoffa’s way.

In between the countless memorable crime-story set pieces, e.g., a scene set in Chicago where Frank destroys dozens of Checker Cabs when the company won’t join the Teamsters, “The Irishman” downshifts for domestic sequences illustrating the lasting damage Frank inflicts on his family. Imagine growing up with a father who beats the local grocer to within an inch of his life over a relatively minor incident, a father whose name is in the papers all the time, for all the wrong reasons.

In the last third of the film, Anna Paquin shows up as Frank’s grown daughter, who has always had a soft spot for her “uncle” Jimmy Hoffa, but long ago gave up on a loving relationship with her own father. It’s a small role, but Paquin makes every moment count.

To the very end, when an ancient, infirm Frank tells a priest he knows he’s SUPPOSED to feel bad about the horrific crimes he’s committed, but he isn’t really sorry, “The Irishman” is the story of a ruthless, selfish, brutally violent man who was at the center of some of the most notorious and infamous underworld dealings of the 20th century.

This is the best movie of the year so far and one of the best films of the decade.