If there is one thing director Martin Scorsese knows -- and I'd say he knows a lot more than that one thing but just go with me -- it is the gangster/mobster movie, a theme he has gone back to the well for several times, starting as far back a 1973's Mean Streets and continuing through 2006's The Departed with a few ventures spread through the years in between. With other successful movies like Gangs of New York, Raging Bull, The Aviator and Taxi Driver, Scorsese is shown he is more than just a one-trick pony, but for many fans he will always be associated with gangsters and mobsters.
Is it really a bad thing to be known for success with one type of movie? Scorsese is far from being typecast, and he can make any movie he wants at any time he wants to so I wouldn't say he's been typecast. What sets all his gangster movies apart from your average mobster flick is that he brings the underworld to life in a way where the viewer can appreciate all aspects of the life. One, there's the bond, the camaraderie that develops among these crooks, making the life almost seem glamorous, Second, the not so nice end, the betrayals, double crosses, murders left and right. Nowhere are both aspects handled better than 1990's Goodfellas.
Growing up in 1955 New York, half-Italian, half-Jewish teenager Henry Hill wants nothing more than to be a mobster. Living with his family across the street from a mobster's hangout, Henry sees the life and knows he wants to be a part of it. So he gets a job working for the local boss, Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), and starts working his way up the ladder. Fast forward seven years and a 20-something Henry (Ray Liotta) is a powerful member of Cicero's crew and showing no signs of slowing down. Working with Irish hitman Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and livewire psycho Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), Henry continues to make a name for himself.
He marries a Jewish girl, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and starts a family with the nice suburban house. Everything seems to be in Henry's favor as the money from all his *cough* business ventures continues to roll in. But how many times have we seen this story? For every meteoric rise to the top, there's also the inevitable downfall. Based on a book called Wiseguy, Goodfellas brings you into the life of a mobster like few other movies have -- sometimes to the detriment of the story, but more later on that. Henry serves as the narrator (Karen gets a few voiceovers too), explaining and illustrating background in a few sentences that would have taken whole scenes to describe.
And working with a true story as a source, Scorsese nails the scenes with these underworld personalities. The dialogue crackles with energy, the banter between these guys is unbelievable, blunt, in your face, filthy, and generally as politically incorrect as possible. These scenes also serve to show the tight-knit bond and culture these guys share -- sometimes for good, sometimes for bad -- having chosen a "job" that will most likely end with a jail sentence or a bullet in your head.
For years, all I heard were positively glowing reviews for this movie, and I'm not disagreeing but parts are both sluggish and too fast-paced at the same time. In 145 minutes, Scorsese covers 25 years of story with some parts going by too quickly and then the whole last 30 minutes devoted to a single day. And as good as Bracco is as long-suffering wife Karen, the segments dealing with Henry's family don't have the same energy as the rest of the movie. That's not to say these scenes aren't good, but it never feels like I'm watching anything I haven't seen before.
The scenes that are on par with everything Godfather I and II offers are with Henry, Jimmy and Tommy. It's the type of role for Liotta that makes me question why he never became a bigger star. He might not have the most glamorous part here, but don't fool yourself...this is his movie, and he's the star. De Niro and Pesci (who won a best supporting Oscar) have parts that don't require them to be in every scene so their characters drift in and out of the story. But when they are on-screen, it's some of the best scenery-chewing (thank you Netflix for the description) you'll ever see. Pesci is a lunatic (watch this classic scene), ready to blow somebody away for insulting him, and De Niro isn't too far behind. Great parts here for two great actors.
Picking this movie on my Netflix queue, I wanted to love it but only ended up really liking it. All the Scorsese touches are there, the great rock soundtrack used to perfection, the amazing script, and that dark humor that works so well in stories like this, like THIS scene where all the mobsters are introduced. All the positives definitely outweigh the negatives, and I'm definitely recommending this one, but I'm a little disappointed I didn't like it more.
Goodfellas <----trailer (1990): ***/****