Tag: Al Pacino

House of Gucci (2021)

House of Gucci (2021)

Ridley Scott’s bizarre film is half-pantomime, half true-crime drama

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Lady Gaga (Patrizia Reggiani), Adam Driver (Maurizio Gucci), Jared Leto (Paolo Gucci), Jeremy Irons (Rudolfo Gucci), Al Pacino (Aldo Gucci), Salma Hayek (Giuseppe Auriemma), Jack Huston (Domenico De Sole), Reeve Carney (Tom Ford), Camille Cottin (Paola Franchi), Youssef Kerkour (Nemi Kirdar)

There are few juicier combinations than glamour, money, fashion and true crime. Scott’s House of Gucci taps into this with a film that’s somewhere between pantomime and tragedy. Full of actors giving their very best “Mamma Mia!” Italian accents and shrugging shoulders, it oscillates wildly from scene-to-scene between black comedy and operatic high drama. It’s a strange mixture, with House of Gucci becoming some sort of bizarre treat, like an end-of-year treat for cinema viewers to unwrap.

The film follows the disastrous marriage between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Patrizia, a ruthlessly ambitious gold digger, zeroes in on the shy Maurizio, heir to 50% of the Gucci fashion fortune, and marries him. This is all to the horror of his father Rudulfo (Jeremy Irons), who (correctly) identifies Patrizia’s ambitions, and cuts them off. Taken under the wing of Rudolfo’s brother Aldo (Al Pacino), Patrizia pushes Maurizio into a management role in the company – and down a slippery slope that will lead to forgery, betrayal and eventually murder.

House of Gucci feels like it might have existed more comfortably as a ten-part TV drama. It’s essentially a big, brash version of the Emmy-award winning The People vs. OJ Simpson, but told in about a quarter of the time. What this basically means is that any subtle character work and detailed story telling is sacrificed, with the focus firmly on the salacious and entertaining drama. The overall effect is a swift rush through a story that becomes a series of sensational, almost comedic, clashes between larger-than-life personalities squabbling over a huge pot of money. Like Dallas on the big-screen, it’s all scored with a series of funky pop tunes, adding to the sense of pantomime.

It’s an odd outing from Scott, with (it felt to me) little of the individual stylistic touches that he has bought to other projects. In fact there’s very little of his stamp on it: it’s Scott as professional craftsman. He and the film feel very confused by the tone. Mostly the film doubles down on black humour and show-casing big, brash performances. Then it might acknowledge briefly that there were real victims here, which it wants to treat with a level of respect. By and large, the film is like a glossy magazine article, with Scott nudging you as you turn each page and saying “you will not believe what happened next!”

I suppose House of Gucci probably could have explored more the personal and emotional hinterlands of its characters. Relationships shift dramatically from scene-to-scene, with Maurizio and Patrizia’s marriage souring over-night, for no clear reason. Pre-existing family rivalries and politics could have been explored more: it’s heavily implied Aldo and Rudolfo are already engaged in a struggle of ideals (Aldo wants commercial expansion, Rudolfo to remain an elitist fashion house). Drama could have been made of the attempts by both brothers to use other members of the family as pawns in this feud. But then, a film that dived into the psychology of the players might well have ended up being more about business and less about the entertaining ruthlessness of the rich and famous.

The performances are wildly different in tone. Lady Gaga effectively holds the film together as an ambitious woman who is only partially aware (at first) of what a ruthless gold digger she is. Devoid of any interests other than being rich (“I’m a people pleaser” she tells Rudolfo when asked what her interests are), Patrizia is the sort of monster of ambition who would fit comfortably into an episode of Desperate Housewives. Setting her cap at Maurizio with a laser-like focus and shafting everyone left, right and centre (although Gaga does hint at her deeply repressed insecurity) it’s a performance that walks a fine line between OTT and human. The film has a lot of fun at her amoral certainty – she sees no problem with forging Rudolfo’s signature on some vital papers after his death (the film even sets forgery up as Chekhov’s skill in its opening scenes) and Gaga enjoyably plays the outrage that only someone convinced they never wrong can feel.

Opposite her, Driver plays Maurizio as a timid, easily seduced young man, pushed into taking a leading role in a business he has no real interest in (or aptitude for). Driver is softly spoken – and gives the most restrained and grounded performance in the film – and frequently meets another demand from his wife with a chuckle and a reluctant “Patrizia…”. House of Gucci steps carefully around Maurizio, sometimes playing him as an innocent abroad, at others as a man corrupted by his wife into a creature of ambition.

Most of the rest of the cast go for a broad style which, while fun to watch, only adds to the sense that we aren’t supposed to be taking anything too seriously. While many of the Gucci family probably were larger-than-life personalities, I’m not sure they could have been the cartoons they are here. Irons goes for a waspish Scar-like mastery of the cutting remark. Pacino doubles down on his shoulder-hunched energy, with added shouting. Hayek gives a performance that’s a near master-class in Vampish camp, plotting murder from a mud bath.

Towering above them all is Jared Leto, who seems to be in a film all of his own, with every scene another clip for his “for your consideration” show-reel. Buried under a mountain of latex that transforms him into a clone of Jeffrey Tambor, Leto goes all out as the passionate, ultra-stereotypical-Italian Paolo Gucci, in a performance that’s either a shameless parade of showing off or somewhere near a stroke of genius. It works because, beneath all the hammy exuberance, Leto make’s Paolo a desperately sweet guy, the only real innocent in the film. Leto and Pacino in particular feed off each other – a late scene between the two is hilarious (I’m not sure in the right way, but who can tell what these actors are aiming for sometimes) in its joyful overplaying.

Perhaps joy is the one thing House of Gucci needs a little bit more on. I wonder how more entertaining again it might have been if the film had really gone all out on being a camp classic. It shies away from this, wanting to leave some vestige of respect for the dead and not lose its true-crime-roots. But, I wonder if a director more suited to this material than Scott – who struggles to stamp his personality on it – might have done more to make this into a cult classic.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino takes a bank hostage in Dog Day Afternoon

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Al Pacino (Sonny Wortzik), John Cazale (Sal Naturile), Charles Durning (Sgt Eugene Moretti), Chris Sarandon (Leon Sharmer), James Broderick (Agent Sheldon), Lance Henriksen (Agent Murphy), Penelope Allen (Sylvia), Sully Boyer (Mulvaney), Susan Peretz (Angie Wortzik), Carol Kane (Jenny)

Perhaps only in the 70s could a failed bank robber have been turned over-night into a counter-culture folk-hero. It’s the subject of Sidney Lumet’s thrilling, heist-gone-wrong movie, set on one sweltering day in New York when Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) tried to rob a bank to fund the sex-change operation of his boyfriend Leon (Chris Sarandon). He ends up taking the co-operative bank staff hostage while a media and public firestorm takes place outside the bank, mixed in amongst an army of trigger-happy cops. And it’s all based on a true story.

Sonny is far from your hardened criminal. He doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. He takes care of the hostages, who all become immensely fond of him and his less confident partner-in-crime Sal (John Cazale). When the police and media turn up, Sonny is outraged at the trigger-happy police presence and quickly wins the support of the crowd with his honesty, bluntness and quick wit. With the police incapable of controlling the situation, soon he is actively playing to the crowd, taking phone calls from the press in the bank. He becomes a counter-culture icon, sticking it to the man (his famous chant of “Attica!”, refers to the famous prison riots, where prisoners rioted to secure their rights).

It’s the key topic that fascinates Sidney Lumet, in this brilliantly frentic, edgy and dynamic film, that captures the tension in New York, where it felt like the careful balance between law and order could disintegrate any time. Lumet’s improvisational feel with the crowds, the edgy, raw performances – particularly from Pacino and Durning, both of whom are sensational – and the sense that anything could happen at any time. Dog Day Afternoon is about a city on the edge, combined with the ability of the media to turn regular people into stars. There was little faith in the authorities, and even a little bit of nose thumbing in their direction could sway the crowds.

At the centre of all this is Sonny, a fascinatingly flawed person, partly absorbed with being the centre of attention, part desperately trying to work out what his best move is among an increasingly narrowing number of options. Al Pacino nearly didn’t take the role, after suffering a near nervous collapse from the pressure of Godfather Part II – but, after committing to the film, he gave one of his most extraordinary performances of an era he and a small group of actors dominated.

Sonny feels increasingly trapped in his predicament. The robbery of the bank is hilariously cack-handed from the start – one of the robbers bails in minutes and has to be begged not to go home in the get-away car – and it becomes clear that for Sonny this is all a last desperate throw of the dice. Both of his relationships – with his first wife and his second marriage to Leon – are relationships on the brink of disaster, destabilised by Sonny’s desperate need for prove of love and affection. He’s a man uncertain in his own skin, smart enough to know the world isn’t fair, but not smart enough to know what to do with it. Fundamentally decent, but forced into illegal actions. Pacino delivers this with the expected fireworks, but when we see Sonny away from the public gaze, he’s a sad, broken-down, isolated man who genuinely doesn’t know where his life is going.

Dog Day Afternoon was radical at the time for how it deals with homosexuality. Neither Sonny nor Leon are presented – as might have been expected at the time – as limp-wristed or fey, but just regular guys who happen to want different things from life. Chris Sarandon (Oscar nominated) is strikingly tender, low-key and world-weary as a man resigned to what the world is throwing at him, from the emotional pressure of meeting Sonny’s needs for affection, to spending every day feeling trapped in his body and facing suspicious stares from all around him. Pacino presents Sonny as a masculine, dynamic figure whose sexuality is just part of his personality. It’s a film not afraid to acknowledge the love between men, and never considers this anything other than entirely normal – something extremely unlikely in 70s cinema. Indeed, you can see the mood of the time in the way the crowd changes once the motivations behind Sonny’s actions becomes clear. Hostility grows – through many gay rights activists quickly arrive to bolster the crowd. The films normalising of homosexuality, also serves as a critique for the assumptions and reduced options many identifying as gay had at the time.

Of course, this all makes the entire siege even more attractive to the media. The film is a neat satire of the way the press can turn events like this into entertainment. A pizza delivery guy, sent to feed the hostages, can barely contain his excitement, screaming “I’m a star!”. At least two hostages refuse offers to leave the siege – at least partly, it’s suggested, because there is nowhere better to be than at the centre of the show. Pacino’s electric playing to the crowd demonstrates how Sonny’s firecracker sense of the turmoil of the period – the violence of the authorities and the lack of justice for the regular guy – helps feed this. The media’s eagerness to sensationalise the events, do turn them from real life into entertainment – and the way so many characters and on-lookers yearn to be part of a real-life drama – is sharply critiqued, with truth and humanity sacrificed for prime-time ratings (ideas Lumet would explore even more deeply in his next film Network).

It’s also fascinating to watch the cack-handed police inexperience at handling sieges like this, from the lack of central control to the trigger-happy cops, to allowing public and the media to get within a few metres of the bank entrance. Charles Durning is superb as a frazzled police sergeant, out of his depth, unable to control his colleagues and totally lacking the calm and control needed for hostage negotiations. He’s replaced in the operation by FBI agent Sheldon – played with a chilling distance by James Broderick – who represents the other side of the law at the time: ruthless, cold and very ready to switch from negotiation to execution.

Sonny may look is in control of things, but it’s quickly clear no-one really is. Even Sonny feels this, Pacino delivering with a resigned calm a scene where Sonny asks one of the bank tellers to record his final will. Dog Day Afternoon is also a tragedy, with the real victim being Sal, Sonny’s partner in the robbery. He’s played with an almost childish innocence by John Cazale, as a not very-bright man completely out of his depth, whose idea of a foreign country to escape to is Wyoming (a hilarious piece of improvisation by Cazale). While Sonny is the public face of the situation – and someone law officials figure they can work with – Sal becomes a dangerous unknown quantity for them that they feel needs to be disposed with. An offer they openly make to Sonny, who furiously rejects it (but, tellingly perhaps, doesn’t tell Sal about).

Poor Sal sweetly chats with the staff. He quietly warns about the dangers of smoking. He sweats and timidly waits to be told what to do. He bravely tells Sonny that he is completely ready to shoot the hostages, while clearly having no idea about the emotional reality of doing this. He meekly follows instructions and is responds with panic to almost every situation. Cazale’s flawless performance turns him into the real victim here, completely unprepared in every way for the situation he is in (he whiningly complains about being called gay on the news, and is terrified at the idea of flying with the hostages to a foreign country, having never been in a plane before). It’s a wonderful personal tragedy that plays in the background of the film.

Lumet’s film has the dynamic vibe of a fly-on-the-wall documentary turned drama. Pacino is the perfect actor for this, his performance (Oscar-nominated) sensational, high-octane and demonstrative mixed with confused, vulnerable and eventually traumatised and guilt-ridden. The film brilliantly balances questions of politics, media and sexuality, offering seering critiques of attitudes around all three. Wrapped into a fire-cracker film, this is a brilliant piece of social commentary, personal tragedy and street theatre. Overlooked more than it deserved, it’s a masterpiece of 70s film making.

Scarface (1983)

“Shay hell-o to my leetle friend!” Al Pacino puts it all out there in Scarface

Director: Brian de Palma

Cast: Al Pacino (Tony Montana), Steven Bauer (Manny Ray), Michell Pfeiffer (Elvira), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Gina), Robert Loggia (Frank Lopez), Miram Colon (Mama Montana), F. Murray Abraham (Omar), Paul Shenar (Alejandro Sosa), Harris Yulin (Detective Bernstein), Mark Margolis (Shadow)

Remember when Al Pacino played the softly spoken, chillingly self-contained Michael Corleone? Watching The Godfather, who could have imagined that performance would be the outlier in a career that gleefully embraced the insanely OTT in a way few other great actors have dared. And possibly no other performance in Pacino’s career was as large as in Scarface, a ball of nervous energy, foul-mouthed aggression and drug-fuelled instability, the burning heart at the centre of Brian de Palma’s wildfire of a film. Scarface dials every single thing up to about 11 and then some, becoming the director’s brashest and most enduring work – but it owes everything to Pacino’s furious, unreserved energy at its centre.

Pacino plays Tony Montana, a working-class crook from Cuba dispatched (along with boatloads of undesirables from Castro’s regime) to Miami in the early 80s. There, in refugee camps and the local community, it’s crime and violence that give these guys the best chance of grabbing a share of the American Dream. Montana is no different, graduating from hits to drug deals and swiftly moving up the chain with his determination, gruff no-nonsense attitude, fierce loyalty and ruthless focus. But once you hit the top and the world is yours, there is really only one way to go – back down again, made easier when you are hooked on snorting mountains of your own product, incestuously in love with your sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and your increasing arrogance and unreliability put you on the wrong side of your partners and kingpins in South America.

A remake of the 1932 original by Howard Hawks (the film is dedicated to Hawks and the scriptwriter Ben Hecht), Scarface is a brash, unsettling, nervy and incredibly violent cartoon-style gangster movie that owes almost its entire legacy to Pacino’s snarling wit at the centre. Is Pacino taking the piss here with this performance? Surely, he must have wondered if he could get away with it. This is a whirlwind tour-de-force, Pacino throwing himself into it with nothing left in the locker-room. He delightedly wraps his vocal chords around a thick Cuban accent (turning words like cockroach into a three syllable delight – “Cock-ah-roatch”) and embraces his small stature by turning Tony into a little pressure cooker. Seemingly incapable (bar one scene) of staying still, he’s supremely tense, his shoulders hunched up, his teeth on edge, voice growling.

It gives the film an unpredictable energy, because you don’t know what Pacino the performer will do any more than the characters do. He’ll suddenly throw you off with a moment of silence, just as often as he will blast your eardrums with a roar of anger. Emotionally Tony is a complete mess. His obsession with his sister is obvious, a devotion that Tony seems to only half (if that) understand is sexual in nature. But he also has a slight homoerotic bond with best friend Manny Ray (Steven Bauer – the only actor of Cuban heritage in the film), their closeness and macho-posturing carrying more than a whiff of Top Gun-ish “he protests too much”.

Pacino also invests Tony with strangely sympathetic qualities. Sure he’s a violent and ruthless killer and dedicated criminal, but he’s also got a firm sense of loyalty and certain moral lines he won’t cross. He’s got no time for bullshitters and respects only strength and honesty – watch the scene where he brutally talks over the weasely Omar (F. Murray Abraham – jetting back and forth between shooting this and Amadeus for goodness sake!) during a negotiation with drug lord Sosa – he has no respect or regard for his more politically minded boss, only for straight-talking that makes a deal.

It’s all this that ends up making Tony an anti-hero the viewer sort of ends up liking – even while he dopes himself to the brim with coke and funnels piles of it onto the street (not that we see any of that). Tony is a violent killer, but he’s a sort of honest man, a monster yes but a public one that we enjoy seeing. Tony himself recognises this, calling out a crowd of people in a posh restaurant for treating him as a monster so that they can feel better about themselves (slightly undermined by the fact he’s coked to the eyeballs, incoherent and has brutally ended his marriage a second earlier).

So much is Tony a force of nature that, hilariously, it feels like many of the fans of the film – bling gangsters and wannabe street punks – miss that this film is a brutal satire of the culture of excess and greed. Tony’s life falls apart the more money he gets, his addictions and problems growing as his wealth does. He’s an instinctive, but not wise, man who builds a household of fantastic excess and tasteless ostentation (surely, like Saddam, his taps are gold-plated) but also manages to destroy his business and life in a few months due to his greed, stupidity and self-destructive streak.

The things that made him a high-riser are lost the more Tony surrounds himself with garish status symbols. Inevitable destruction walks hand-in-hand with Tony’s “more is more” attitude. The more he attempts to add class and polish to his life, the more he demonstrates his own lack of both qualities. Also, as he gets more obsessed with pointless status symbols he loses the very skills – honesty, energy, shrewdness – that made him a kingpin in the first place. Instead he becomes a drug-fuelled narcissist, making impulsively stupid decisions and wrecking everything he spent the first half of the film building up. Tony Montana is the face of a certain type of Reagan/Thatcher economics, where private enterprise rolls in and ruthlessly takes and takes, with no regard for the impact on other people and no interest in sustainability.

De Palma captures this pretty well – although he probably ends up making this satire of excess more of a hubristic tragedy. Largely because the film falls so hard for Tony – or rather Pacino – that the fact that Tony is, despite his own moral code, a pretty reprehensible person can be easily lost. Not that de Palma probably cares that much, since his main aim here seems to be to create a hell of a ride. And there are some great set-pieces, and some wonderfully character beats – not least a sequence where Tony seizes control of the empire from weak boss Robert Loggia and sinister corrupt cop Harris Yulin.

The film certainly does that, flying from set-piece to set-piece so swiftly and with such a sense of pace and shark-like momentum, you almost don’t notice that it runs for as long as it does. Every few minutes gives us a scene with stand-out moments of either Pacino grandstanding, shocking violence or both. Scarfaceis a very violent film – everything from chain saws to bullets are used to pull gangster bodies apart – and while it has a sort of moral message (“Excess is bad”) it’s really just an excuse like Cecil B DeMille to make us feel good about ourselves by watching someone pretty bad (but with a few redeeming qualities) dance like a bear for two and a bit hours doing terrible things (entertainingly) before being carved down in a hail of bullets as the devil comes round to collect.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Al Pacino defines his career (and film history) as The Godfather Part II

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay Corelone), Robert De Niro (Vito Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth), Michael V. Gazzo (Frank Pentangeli), GD Spradlin (Senator Pat Greary), Richard Bright (Al Neri), Gastone Moschin (Don Fanucci), Morgana King (Mama Corelone)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul? It’s the question that drives this triumphant, Oscar-laden, sequel to Coppola’s cinema-defining masterpiece, The Godfather to create what is, without doubt, the greatest one-two punch in cinema history, two films that develop and contrast each other naturally it’s very easy to consider them as one perfect film.

It’s 1958 and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has seen his power grow to control Crime across several states. However problems confront him including rivalry from Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) his business partner, a disaffected capo Frank Pentangeli (Michael V Gazzo) talking to a Senate investigation and growing tensions in his marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton). The story is intercut with the rise to power of his father Vito (Robert DeNiro), a man raising his family in Little Italy and realising the temptations of a life of crime.

Happy with just one Godfather film, Coppola only agreed to a second in return for a pile of cash and complete creative control. He used that to create a film even deeper, richer and mesmeric (perhaps) than the first film. While The Godfather is high grade pulp fiction, shot and assembled with arthouse skill and layered with depth, Part II is a profound family saga, an arthouse epic spliced with rich vein of pulp fiction at its heart. A multi-generational story that illustrates the dark corruption at the heart of America from top to bottom, it also demonstrates the stark differences in personality and action between two ruthless, authoritarian father figures who do all that they do in the name of family, one of whom sees that family prosper and grow around him, the other who destroys everyone near to him.

Coppola’s film removes much of the slightly cuddily family element from the Corleone family to show a darker, bleaker, chillier movie than its landmark predecessor. Coppola uses his control to expand and deepen the Corleone saga both in the past and present, but also in the dark hearts and secrets of a family built on crime, extortion and murder. It’s a thematically rich, engrossing and beautifully assembled piece of film-making. Exquisite in every touch and beat, completely convincing and breath-taking in its confidence it is clearly the greatest sequel ever made.

The film charts the final descent of Michael Corleone into the dark recesses of his own worst desires and instincts. The brutal, unforgiving, unrelenting coldness and absolute certainty matched with the overwhelming hunger to win that has left him hollowed out and unrecognisable from the naïve, idealistic young war hero we were introduced to at the wedding that opens The Godfather. Of course, even at the start of the film, as Michael holds court with a chilling coolness and maintains only awkward contact with his family – all of whom must submit to him and his wishes or face lethal consequences – it’s clear that the man who talked of “it’s my family Kay, it’s not me” is a long, long way away.

During the film we see Michael seem to harden even further, an adamantine chillness captured superbly by Al Pacino. In, without doubt, the greatest performance of his career, Pacino restrains bar maybe three times, the explosive energy and ferocity that has been the hallmark of his career (a feat that allegedly made him physically ill). Instead, he presents a Michael who is an almost pathologically cold fish, a fiercely intelligent, scheming observer with eyes that observe and understand everything, jet black boreholes that suggest only whirlpools of emptiness behind them. He’s unrelenting, lacks any doubt and (it becomes clear) has not a vestige of pity left in him, with empathy forced out of his body like water from a squeezed sponge. Pacino prowls every frame like a quiet tiger, oozing sharpness, intelligence and lethal, ruthless ambition.

Everything is done to protect and secure his family and its legacy, but each action seems to strip him one by one of everyone he claims to be protecting. His children seem to live in intimidation and later terror of him. His wife turns from misery to loathing to being ejected from the family home, even aborting her pregnancy to prevent herself bringing another Corleone into the world (a reaction that leads to a final, relationship severing explosion of rage from Michael). His brother Fredo, poor sweet, foolish Fredo, is sacrificed to an unrelenting desire for revenge. The man who did everything for “the family” ends the film by having his last surviving brother executed. The brother who, the film’s coda reveals, was the only member of the family to support his signing up for service in World War Two.

As Coppola’s camera drills into the face of Michael, cold, greying, alone in an autumnal garden – and how often the film simply studies the ruthless calculation of Michael, the man who understands every move everyone makes before they even make it – you know we are looking at a man who has damned himself, who has destroyed everything who claims to hold dear while working to protect it.

Brilliantly, Coppola intercuts the storyline of Michael’s damning collapse into complete moral damnation with the rise of his father. The Young Vito Corleone – played with Oscar-winning skill by De Niro who superbly channels the basic facets of Brando’s performance mixed with his own charm – arrives in America to find it a land as in thrall to the rule of the gangs as his hometown in Sicily. Like Michael in the first film, he is tempted by the world of crime and finds he has a natural aptitude for it: like his son he is a man who people follow, and the man who has the will to do what must be done. Like him he is an empire builder who commands respect and honour.

But unlike his son, he is a man capable of warmth, of empathy. He is man who can be playful, who respects others, who can feel forgiveness, who sees others as people, not just (as Michael does) simply being tools to be manipulated. Vito may be a murderer like his son, but he loves his wife, he loves his children and he can form bonds with them – natural, warm, loving bonds – that Michael can only dream of doing. For Vito it is all about the family, and providing for them is what inspires his actions. For Michael it’s words, but for Vito – it is everything.

Coppola masterfully intercuts these two storylines so they brilliantly comment and contrast with each other. Each step of Michael’s struggles to overcome the plots around him, are perfectly bookended with contrasting moments of Vito’s own rise to power, and the bonds of loyalty he builds even as Michael destroys those own bonds in his own life.

But then Michael is dealing with high stakes. While Vito’s early life shows Mafiosi running Little Italy, and calling the shots on the neighbourhood, a local tradition inherited en masse from the mother land, Michael moves in the worlds of government corruption. The empire we see Vito start to build is destined under his son to interfere in the rule of whole countries in Cuba, and commit unspeakable crimes to bring Senators and witnesses under their control in Senate Hearings into Organised Crime.

Coppola had intended the storyline around the reluctant family witness to be Clemenza, but Richard Castellano famously refused to reprise his role unless he was allowed to write his own dialogue. (The Godfather Part II was blighted with actor disputes: Brando refused to reprise his role in the film’s coda, while James Caan was paid more for a day’s work than he was for the whole of the first film). Instead the role was passed to Michael V Gazzo (Oscar nominated) as Frankie Pentangali, a loud-mouthed Capo manipulated into thinking he has been betrayed by the family. This threat hangs over the second half of the film – but Michael barely seems to break sweat under interrogation.

He has more problems with the Meyer Lansky inspired Hyman Roth (played by Pacino’s teacher, the legendary Lee Strasberg – also Oscar nominated). Roth it is who immerses Michael in a corrupt takeover of the Cuban government by the Mafia – an attempt foiled by the revolution – and Roth who becomes his nemesis, an old man in a hurry, who believes he can match the ruthlessness of this man without a soul. Coppola’s scenes of Cuban excess – not to mention the danger on the street as the country starts to tear itself apart – are of course masterful.

Cuba destroys Fredo, a snivelling John Cazale (inexplicably not nominated, despite extraordinary work here – never mind nomination he arguably should have won). Cazale’s Fredo is endearing but simple, a fundamentally weak man in a family of wolves, whose guilt is almost embarrassingly easily unveiled. Petulantly – but terrifyingly – raging late in the film at Michael at being passed over, he sits (sweaty and veins throbbing) in a reclining chair that bounces on each point he makes – a simple touch that makes him seem more and more impotent and pathetic every second.

The film echoes much of the structure of the first film, but here retold with a chilling coldness as the warm heart that – for all his crimes – Vito bought to this family is removed. The opening family event, Anthony’s confirmation, is a public show with no personality at all, where the Italians feel all at sea, their culture not known or cared for. Doors are closed on Kay with an alarming regularity – their marriage is so non-functional that even at the start they seem to have very little to say to each other. Vito returns to Sicily, as Michael did, but this time to extract revenge for his parents not to fall in love. The ending of the film culminates in a dark, ruminative and tragic hinged cleansing of Michael’s – crucially not the families but Michael personally – enemies.

The film is blessed with a brilliant array of supporting turns, from Diane Keaton’s soft-faced sadness masking deep and lasting resentment as Kay, to a flashily amusing tone from GD Spranlin as the greasily corrupt Senator. Robert Duvall does unsung but powerful work as a Tom Hagen coldly loyal, perhaps even in slight fear of his adopted brother, but despite his seeming decency willing to carry out truly terrible deeds for the family. Talia Shire (also nominated) is great as the rebellious Connie who pleads in vain for Fredo’s salvation.

This is all beautifully packaged together by Coppola into a film that meditates on the building and the destruction of a family, two stories neatly told together in parallel, with each echoing the other. It is a film shot at a riveting but controlled pace, that uses the classical filmic style of the original but mixed even further with the genius shooting of Gordon Willis to add a dark tinged 1970s style to ever shot. The film is an art house classic, but also a superb plot boiler, a gangster film that tells us profound truths about the attitudes that make us men and those that destroy us, just as it suggests that the darkness at the heart of crime will eventually consume the very thing it starts out to protect (even if it does take generations). While it is not as entertaining or engaging perhaps as the first film – it is perhaps an even greater achievement, a superb triumph of atmosphere and tone and a terrifying insight into the darkness that man can achieve.

For at the end Michael has won utterly. But he is also utterly defeated.

The Irishman (2019)

De Niro and Pacino under digital facelifts bring to life Scorsese’s meditative The Irishman

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio), Anna Paquin (Peggy Sheeran), Stephen Graham (Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O’Brien), Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno)

Scorsese had wanted to make this film for almost 20 years but it took the mega bucks of Netflix (to the tune of over $150 million) to finally bring it to life. With complete creative control, we get Scorsese’s epic as he saw it, an over three-and-a-half hour long sad meditation on the life of the gangster. For the first time in almost 25 years, Scorsese is reunited with his muse Robert De Niro – appearing here under various digital facelifts to tell the story of Frank Sheeran, an Irish member of the Mafia, and his relationship with infamous Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Was the film worth the effort to make it?

I first saw The Irishman in the cinema. I now feel that was a mistake. This is a film that needs to be soaked in like a warm bath. Like reading an involving novel, it needs to savoured and consumed at your own pace. In the cinema in one take – with no intermission – its runtime is punishing. It’s the worst form of criticism but in one take, the film can overstay its welcome. In fact it can become a little boring.

Re-watching the film a year later at home – where I could break it up into three chunks as (I feel) so many people have, it becomes a richer and more engrossing viewing experience. Because this is a totally different beast to Scorsese’s previous gangster movies, a quiet mood piece, contemplative, sad, a genuinely tragedy-tinged, doom-laden reflection on the emptiness and costly violence of the gangster life, and the empty shells it leaves of the people in it. And at its centre, a man so dehumanised by war, by obeying orders, so lacking of personality, so incapable of emotion it seems, that he ends the film as a blank, lonely, abandoned slate. It’s a real, and deliberate, counter-point to his electric gangster films of the past, from Mean Streets via Goodfellas to Casino and the cartoonish The Departed. Here the price of doing business is your soul – and when that final bullet comes (as it inevitably will) you have nothing to show for it.

It makes for a late Scorsese epic – nearly a TV mini-series – slow-paced, wintery and a perfect counterpoint to Goodfellas. There crime is ruthless but you can see it’s also fun. Here it’s hardwork, unrewarding and inevitably leads to a bloody demise. Time settles on the shoulders of its leads like deadweights and their is a weary sadness as they trudge from one feud to another, each of which can only be resolved by putting another body in the ground. And everyone knows that the next feud might well mean it’s their body that will end up six feet under.

Frank Sheeran is a drained automaton, a human being possibly in name only, who takes on violent acts without question, who can kill without remorse. This is the very picture of a second-tier career criminal, a man who takes orders and carries out missions. De Niro brilliantly creates an sociopathic monster, a man almost devoid of his own personality, with little to him but a taciturn killer. Sheeran is a tough character to relate to or understand – but that’s because he’s not really a character at all. Interestingly he doesn’t have the sort of flaws that undermine other Scorsese gangsters, like Henry Hill. His flaw is in fact his entire existence. His sociopathic acceptance of violence, his thoughtless carrying out of killing, his inability to relate to human beings. It’s what leaves him alone, unloved and isolated in a care-home. This is a man who can barely muster much emotion about killing his best friend, whose quiet, placid nature perhaps only hides his lack of capability of even experiencing emotion.

The Teamster union politics content of the film is often dense and hard-to-follow. At times it tips into being not that interesting. So it’s tough that it takes up almost two hours of the film’s run-time. It’s a sign of the films overindulgence. At the end of the day I’m not sure it adds much to your overall impression of the film. But reviewing the film perhaps that’s the point. The very shallowness and even pettiness of this feuding – not to mention the naked, unromantic greed – over how to distribute union pension money, explodes the myth of any romance to this crime. These are blue-collar conmen, using violence as a way to conclude a board meeting.

As Jimmy Hoffa, Al Pacino is the best he’s been in literally decades – the film uses his “hoo hah” shoutiness to great effect, but Pacino also makes Hoffa an unexpectedly vulnerable and lost figure amongst all the politics, a showman who overestimates his importance and invulnerability. The entire film is shaped (we discover) around a series of flashbacks from Sheeran on a road trip on what turns out to be the final days of Hoffa’s life (the film includes a solution to Hoffa’s famous disappearance). De Niro and Pacino spark beautifully off each other as a bond forms between them – the films lingering on their growing friendship (and at times strangely homoerotic intimacy) one of its strongest elements, as well as carefully demonstrating how disloyalty is a crucial survival skill in this world.

The film strongest elements are the doom-laden nihilism of the gangster life. Told by Scorsese deliberately without flash and excitement, with a score so sparse that long stretches of the film echo with silence, there seems to be no fun at all in the gangster world, instead a series of mundane men sitting in small restaurants, talking about admin and punching the clock. Many of the gangster characters are introduced with on-screen captions that detail the dates and natures of their violent deaths. It’s the exact opposite of what you might expect from a Scorsese film. It’s a director showing the dark flipside of his previous films, of the way the gangster life is a dwindle through a dull life marked with moments of danger, where death is a sudden violent explosion that ends a life too soon.

And it leaves families in a mess. Anna Paquin speaks very few words as Sheeran’s adult daughter, but only because her silent disapproval and disgust at her father’s life becomes the haunting of Sheeran’s whole life. His daughter’s silent disgust is a recurrent theme (even from childhood, she is repulsed by his capacity for violence and his heartlessness). Sheeran’s attempt to break through her silent disapproval, to get her to acknowledge him in some way becomes a large part of the sad coda of Sheeran’s life. It’s all part of Scorsese’s message: what is the point of a life like this that brings wealth and power, but also leaves you broken, lonely and despised by everyone around you?

And you can’t argue with the skill with which this quiet, meditative, grim and slow exploration of the gangster world is put together by Scorsese – or the artistry that every moment of the film has, or the control of the director. It’s beautifully shot and edited. It’s pace is at times glacial, but this is resolved by watching at your own pace on Netflix. It’s not a film to be binged (ironically Scorsese has made a television novel that he wants you to watch in one go) but instead one to be savoured and considered. That’s where it’s strengths are.

There are also excellent performances. Joe Pesci, lured from retirement, is outstanding. He’s a revelation as a sort of cool, calm, grandfatherly fixer a million miles from the lunatics he played in Casino or Goodfellas. Pesci quietly dominates several scenes, using stillness and quiet like a vicious badger who knows he only needs to swat once to remove his foes. This is a performance of beautifully judged grace and stability, a calm reflectiveness that carries a vicious coldness at its heart. Russell may prefer a peaceful solution – but he will order your death without thinking twice. Also excellent is Stephen Graham as the sort of dangerously impulsive bully Pesci played to such great effect in those earlier movies.

And those famous digital facelifts? Well they are fine technically. You ignore them after a while. But no matter of digital trickery can make De Niro move with the gait, physicality or certainty of a man more than 30 years younger than he is. As we watch De Niro (supposedly a killer in his prime) shamble forward, or gingerly give a rude grocer a kicking, you can’t forget that he’s really a much older man. To be honest the film would have been just as good – maybe better – with actors the correct age filling in for the younger roles. Watching it again, I’m never convinced that I am watching a De Niro the age he was in Mean Streets or even Goodfellas. To be honest, at times the facelifts don’t look a lot more convincing than hair dye and a little tape to stretch the skin back.

In fact the digital facelift at times is almost a metaphor for the film: it’s a film where age and time are a constant presence. Knowing the lead actors are old men, trying to look young kind of sits with that. These are not dynamic, triumphant young men. But then they never were. These are men who feel the burdens of the world on their shoulders every day. Who at the end of their lives will have nothing to show for it over than a satisfaction that they managed to live slightly longer than they expected. Whose friends and family will hate them and who find they sold their souls and gained nothing but dust in exchange. Long, slow, sometimes trying – but on a second rewatch, also compelling, thought-provoking, heartfelt, insightful and inspiring.

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (2019)

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio have fun in Tarantino’s appalling Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Rick Dalton), Brad Pitt (Cliff Booth), Margot Robbie (Sharon Tate), Al Pacino (Marvin Schwarz), Emile Hirsch (Jay Sebring), Margaret Quailey (Pussycat), Timothy Olyphant (James Stacy), Julia Butters (Trudi Fraser), Austin Butler (“Tex” Watson), Dakota Fanning (Squeaky), Bruce Dern (George Spahn), Mike Moh (Bruce Lee), Luke Perry (Wayne Maunder), Damian Lewis (Steve McQueen), Brenda Vaccaro (Mary Alice Schwarz), Nicholas Hammond (Sam Wanamaker)

Spoilers: I’ll discuss the film’s final 40 minutes in detail. I mean when you watch it you can guess where it’s going. But those final moments are truly central to my visceral hatred of this film.

There seems to be three eras of Tarantino movies. The first (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) saw him work with pulpy themes focused on strong stories and character development. The second (Kill Bill and Grindhouse) saw him indulge his fascination with the B-movie and low-rent TV of his childhood. His third (Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained) sees him making strange revenge fantasies on behalf of other groups. Once Upon a Time is a marriage between his second and third eras. And I hated it. I hated, hated, hated, hated it. I genuinely can’t remember seeing a film I hated more at the cinema (maybe Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). It’s a self-indulgent, tasteless, overlong, smug, unbearable pile of pleased with itself shit. It’s grotesque and it left me feeling dirty.

The plot (such as it is) follows three days in the lives of fictional Hollywood-turned-TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s best friend, chauffeur and personal assistant who can’t get a job in Hollywood due to his terrible reputation. Dalton lives next door to Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). On Feb 8th 1969, Dalton is offered a role in spaghetti westerns and preps for his next episodic TV show. On Feb 9thDalton shoots the pilot of Lancer a new TV western (and a real TV show) as the baddie, suffering a crisis of confidence about his career and talent. Meanwhile Booth does some odd jobs and has an odd encounter with the Manson family. Intercut with this are scenes of Sharon Tate going about her everyday life, including joyfully watching one of her films in the cinema. Finally we join the action after a time jump on August 8thas, after returning from filming in Italy, Dalton and Booth get drunk and high and accidentally waylay the Manson gang on their way to Sharon Tate’s house and – this being now Tarantino’s thing – brutally and bloodily murder the three Manson family killers.

Sigh. I think a question now has to be asked about what Tarantino’s problem is. As I realised where this film was going, my heart sank. This sort of revenge porn is, I’ll be honest, revolting, demeaning, tasteless and, leaving all else aside, not Tarantino’s place. It also demeans and cheapens the actual tragedies that happened to real people. Just as shots of Hitler’s head being machine-gunned to pieces in Inglorious Basterds while Jewish-American paratroopers machine-gunned a room of Nazi’s seemed to be grossly inappropriate, lowered the victims to the level of the killers and cheapened the actual deaths of real people in the Holocaust, making them seem like weak victims (as well as hardly being Tarantino’s place being neither Jewish or having any connection to the Holocaust) so it’s equally tasteless here. He just about gets away with it in Django Unchained, a black revenge thriller from a director who is not black and has littered his scripts with the “n-word” as all these guys were at least fictional people. But here it’s just grotesque.

We pride ourselves now that we have left the Gladiatorial ring behind, or that we no longer gather round on a Bank Holiday weekend to watch a convicted criminal being hung, drawn and quartered. But as I watched the Manson killers being bludgeoned to death, mutilated by a dog, their Glasgow kissed skulls crushed against a mantelpiece and immolated by flame thrower, I thought we’re not that far off. It’s basically a pornographic level of violence, that the film excuses because the Manson killers were bad guys (don’t get me wrong they were) but asking us to take pleasure in killing, is basically what Manson himself asked his followers to do. I find watching this sort of stuff not only feels like it cheapens the actual brutal, tragic murders of an eight-month pregnant Tate and her three friends, but also lowers me the level of the killers themselves. Tarantino’s films increasingly feel like the director himself would be fully on board with that episode of Black Mirror (“White Bear”) – where a killer is tortured everyday by tourists, and then has her mind wiped so she can go through it every single day – being turned into a reality.

In fact Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a worrying voyage into the man’s soul, and what I saw there was partly this muddled vanity and obsession with revenge (I mean who gives him the right to take revenge on behalf of others? Someone please tell me? There is an arrogance to that I find deeply unattractive), partly the tragically boring geeky tedium of the video-store nerd, mixed with a loving regard for white men and a worrying lack of interest (bordering on contempt) for anyone different.

I loathed and despised the final forty minutes of this film, but to be honest the opening two hours are not a lot better. This film is almost three hours long and contains about thirty minutes of plot if that. What it mostly is, is a chance for Tarantino to indulge to a ludicrous degree his obsession with low-rent culture of the 1950s and 1960s. To show off his knowledge of obscure films of the age (he’s heard of The Night They Raided Minsky’s you know…) and recreate in painstaking detail pastiches of the type of TV shows he grew up watching. These sequences seem to go on forever and ever, with the odd good line and decent gag not suddenly making it anything other than increasingly tedious.

What he really, really, really needs is a collaborator to tell him when less is more and certainly when too much is too much. The first two thirds of the film seem to stretch on for an indulgent eternity, and their content reveals more and more of the director’s obsession. White men are idealised and the old-school values of Hollywood, the world of the studio and simpler non-PC times are looked back on with a fussy nostalgia. The film takes every opportunity for Booth and Dalton to lambast hippie culture and the growing anti-establishment of the era, and has every character we meant to like yearning for the good old days.

Bruce Lee appears in the film, here interpreted as a braggart arsehole, showing off to the stunt men, who is humiliated by Cliff in a brawl. It’s a scene that amuses for a second and then makes you uncomfortably realise you are watching the most prominent non-white person in the film being put into his place by a middle-aged white man. It’s got more than a hint of racism to it. And Tarantino claims to be a fan of Bruce Lee! By contrast, while the film brutally murders the Manson killers, James Stacy (played by Timothy Olyphant here) the chiselled white-male star of Lancer, a man later jailed for repeated child molestation, is treated with a laudatory romance. Guess there are different rules for white guys who starred in Tarantino’s favourite shows. Whither the revenge saga where his victims mutilate him eh?

Women don’t get a better deal in this film. Sharon Tate is essentially an elevated extra, although Tarantino gets one lovely sequence out of her watching her latest film – a playful swinging 60s spy caper with Dean Martin – in a cinema and gleefully enjoying both the film and the audience reaction with a childish, delighted grin. But then a lot of the success of this is due to Robbie’s marvellous performance. Tarantino himself does his best to ruin it with his foot fetish, throwing Margot Robbie’s naked feet into virtually every shot. Aside from this, the film shoots and treats Tate like a teenager observing someone they have a crush on, romantically idealising her without ever getting anyway near understanding her or scratching the surface of her personality, instead following her with doe-eyed devotion.

But at least she gets lines. Every other woman in this is either a slut or murderer (or both) from the Manson cult, a shrew (like Booth’s dead wife and Kurt Russell’s stunt manager’s wife) or a bimbo (like Dalton’s eventual Euro-wife). There is no in between. It’s a film for men, written by a man, where the men take centre-stage, and a smugly held up as never doing anything wrong, with the film uncritically indulging their vices as symptoms of their tragedy of being left behind by a more progressive and changing country.

Both Pitt and DiCaprio enjoy swaggering twists on their images. DiCaprio overacts wildly, in an overly mannered performance full of actorly quirks (he has a stammer so we know he’s a sensitive soul deep down!), that riffs on other performances of his and largely involves shouting and swearing. Even scenes of emotional vulnerability carry a method fakeness about them – but then Once Upon a Time is a film with no heart, so it’s not surprising that when one of its characters tries to show one, the film stumbles spectacularly into artificiality. Pitt fares better, with a performance of McQueen like-cool, even if the film seems to believe that even if Cliff did kill his wife (as many believe) it’s fine because she was clearly a bitch.

All of this is shot with a flatness and lack of visual interest that is surprising for Tarantino, usually a much more vibrant director. Maybe he was just echoing the TV styles at the time. Maybe he was saving the fireworks for his orgy of (what he would call) cathartic violence at the end. Maybe it’s just a pretty mundane film. Maybe if Tarantino wasn’t the film-buffs darling, more people would call out his flatness and lack of imagination behind the camera and the soulless flatness of much of the films shooting and pacing. Its mediocrity and smug wallowing in the culture of yesteryear is appalling.

Because Once Upon a Time is a teenager’s film, and worst of all, a teenage bore. It’s got a major crush on Sharon Tate, but barely any interest in her personality. It drones on endlessly about geeky knowledge and old film and television that no one else knows anything about so that it sounds interesting and cool. It takes a childish, immature, sickening delight in fantasising about killing bad people in the most horrific ways it can possible imagine. It thinks it’s really clever and profound, but it’s actually a horrible, horrible film that’s also really tedious and which leaves a deeply unpleasant taste in the mouth, while demeaning the real-life victims of a crime by spinning some ludicrous revenge fantasy around them. It morally offended me after two hours of boring me. I hated it. I hated it. I really, really, really, really hated it. I hated it so very much.

Heat (1995)

De Niro is packing Heat

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Al Pacino (Lt Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Jon Voight (Nate), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto), Diane Venora (Justine Hanna), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Ashley Judd (Charlene Shiherlis), Mykelti Williamson (Sgt Drucker), Wes Studi (Detective Sammy Casals), Ted Levine (Detective Mike Bosko), Dennis Haysbert (Donald Breedan), William Fichtner (Roger van Zandt), Natalie Portman (Lauren Gustafson), Tom Noonan (Kelso), Kevin Gage (Waingro), Hank Azaria (Alan Marciano), Danny Trejo (Trejo), Xander Berkeley (Ralph)

In the mid-90s, Heat was the cinematic event of the year. De Niro! Pacino! Together! In one scene! The two acting heavyweights – wildly proclaimed and popular since the 1970s – had of course made The Godfather Part II together but had shared no scenes. Here, however, we’d see them both at the same time riffing off each other. The great thing is that there is so much more to Heat than just that one scene. Heat is a sort of poetic cops and robbers flick, part stunning action adventure, part profound exploration of the internal souls of men chasing down leads, both good and bad.

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a skilled career criminal who lives his life with a monastic self-denial, saying you can have nothing in your life “that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner”. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is a bombastic, egotistical, workaholic detective with a self-destructive family life. Naturally, these two men find themselves on opposite sides, as McCauley plans his next job and Hanna works to stop him. But the men, with their similar codes dedicated to their chosen career, find that they have an increasing mutual respect – not that that will stop either of them “putting the other one down” if push comes to shove.

Heat is the pinnacle of Michael Mann’s career, and his most triumphant exploration of the conflicted, complex, masculine personalities at the heart of the high-adrenalin worlds of crime and police work. Mann has a gift for giving the simple rush and tumble of cops and robbers a sort of epic poetry, like a metropolitan Beowulf, and he achieves this again here. Heat is a film that throbs with meaning, it’s cool blue lensing and chilly, modern architecture serving as a perfect counterpoint to the cool, professional and focused personalities of its characters.

Heat also goes the extra mile by building this playground confrontation into a mythic battle of wills, a battle of principles and ways of living that seem separated only by a few degrees. Mann invests this with such sweep, such grandiosity (without pomposity), such scale that it becomes a sort of modern epic, a film where intense meaning can be mined by the viewer from every scene. Whether there is in fact any meaning there – avoid listening to Mann’s commentary which drills down so many of his elliptical character beats and open-ended scenes into the dullest, most predictable tropes that he had in mind while filming – is another issue, but Mann’s trick as always with his best work is to make something really quite small and everyday seem like a grand, timeless epic.

It all boils down to that famous coffee shop scene, where De Niro and Pacino for a few magic moments come together. It’s a scene that explicitly asks us to see cop and criminal and understand that there is in many ways very little to choose between them. It hinges on the gentle competitiveness of the actors, and the way they subtly play off each other. It also plays on our own histories of these two actors, of decades of seeing them as two sides of the same coin, both carrying so much cultural baggage for a string of iconic roles that saw them rule Hollywood for over a decade. It’s the sort of scene given extra investment, where you sense the mutual respect of the actors fuelling the strange bond that powers the scene. 

It’s also the one scene of the film that Pacino underplays in. The rest of the film he goes way bigger, powering through each scene with an explosion of shouting and drama. It’s a performance ripe for parody, with more than an edge of ham, but it just about works. Pacino turns Hanna (hilariously the character shares a name with a BBC political journalist of the 1980s) into the purest form of adrenalin junkie, a larger-than-life personality who tears through people and cases with a focused determination that allows no room for a personal life. De Niro downplays far more by contrast, apeing a sort of 1940s noir cool, a monkish insularity that prevents anyone from getting close to him, mixed with a laser-guided determination to do whatever it takes to make his score.

Mann’s film throws these two characters into a series of stunning set pieces with the bank robbery at the centre (“the one last score” that McCauley can’t pass up no matter the danger). The robbery – and the shoot out that follows it – is a triumph of action cinema, brilliantly shot and edited. The gun play is stunning, with Andy McNab having served as a consultant for the actors on the use of automatic weapons. The scene rips through the screen, spewing bullets all over the place in a ruthless, no-onlooker-spared rampage that also really pushes the limits of effective sound design. That’s just the highlight of several scenes that – with guns or otherwise – hum with tension, danger and excitement.

Mann also has enough room in this film though to skilfully establish a number of supporting characters with compelling story lines of their own. Val Kilmer is a tad wooden as McCauley’s number two, but his storyline of troubled marriage is mined for unexpecting pathos (thanks also to Ashley Judd’s fine work as his wife). Kevin Gage is very good as a psychopathic criminal unwisely brought on board to fill a slot in an early robbery. Dennis Haysbert has his own tragic plotline as a criminal trying to turn straight. Diane Venora is excellent as Hanna’s neglected wife, as is Portman as his vulnerable daughter-in-law. This isn’t to mention excellent performances from a rogues gallery of character actors, from Jon Voight to William Fichtner. 

Mann keeps all these plotlines perfectly balanced in a film that is very long but never drags for a minute. Crammed with exciting set pieces and brilliant sequences, it’s a film that manages to feel like it is about a very masculine crisis – the failures of men to balance the personal and their career, selfishly harming those around them because of their addiction to action. Mann’s film looks brilliantly at the essential emptiness and sadness this leads to – as well as the blinkered drive that never prevents men from stopping for a second and changing their lives, no matter how many reflective cups of coffee they have. Mann partners this existential, poetic feeling drama with the ultimate crash-bang cops and robbers and thriller, which will leave you on the edge of your seat no matter how many times you see it. Quite some film.

Carlito's Way (1993)

Sean Penn and Al Pacino struggle with the impact of a life of crime in Carlito’s Way

Director: Brian de Palma

Cast: Al Pacino (Carlito Brigante), Sean Penn (David Kleinfeld), Penelope Ann Miller (Gail), John Leguizamo (Benny Blanco), Luiz Guzmán (Pachanga), Jorge Porcel (Saso), James Rebhorn (Bill Norwalk), Joseph Siravo (Vincent Taglialucci), Frank Minucci (“Tony T” Taglialucci), Adrian Pasdar (Frank Taglialucci), Viggo Mortensen (Lalin)

Every so often from the 1990s onwards, Al Pacino actually bothered to act rather than rage in an orgy of self-parody. It’s the films where he does really embrace the challenge, like Carlito’s Way, that reminds you what a damn fine actor he is. Carlito’s Way may also be a reminder of what an overtly flashy director Brian de Palma is, but it’s a fine American gangster thriller.

In 1975, Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is released from prison after five years on a legal technicality, exposed by his friend and lawyer Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). Carlito makes a speech at his hearing, claiming he is a reformed man who wants leave his criminal past behind him – and to the shock of Kleinfeld and his colleagues in the underworld, he’s telling the truth. Carlito attempts to go straight, and to rebuild a relationship with Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), the young woman he left behind. Unfortunately, Kleinfeld is not only becoming increasingly unpredictable due to his cocaine addiction, but he is starting to blur the lines between criminal lawyer and plain criminal. His actions continually threaten to drag Carlito back into the crime industry.

Carlito’s Way is a fine semi-morality tale, a modern tragedy of a man who, every time he thinks he’s out, “they pull me back in”. And of course we know that he’s on a hiding to nothing, as the film opens with Pacino gunned down by an unknown assailant and recounting most of the film’s plot (presumably) from beyond the grave. His attempts are doomed largely because, in order to go straight quick and easy, he has to raise money the only way he knows how – working in the very same flashy nightclubs and among the career criminals that he should absolutely be avoiding.

Carlito narrates the film with a weary reluctance, carefully recounting the mistakes he made and why. It’s a device that largely manages to avoid telling us the obvious, and actually gets us closer to, and like, Carlito. It also helps that Pacino’s voice itself has a gruff poetry to it, and he adds a Shakespearean grandeur to this familiar old-school tale of the crook who wants out.

Pacino’s intensity works fantastically for the part. He largely keeps the Pacino fireworks for the moments where they carry the most impact. He and de Palma carefully sketch out a portrait of Carlito as a world-weary man, who (try as he might) can’t leave behind the code and rules that have governed his life as a criminal. He can’t escape the confines of thinking like a criminal. Most terribly, his old-school sense of honour (few actors convey dishevelled personal morality better than Pacino) is what will doom him – he can’t break the code of the streets. It’s a terrific, empathetic performance from Pacino.

Pacino also develops a sweet, loving relationship between him and Penelope Ann Miller’s Gail. In the way of these films, Gail is a stripper – she alternates between sweetly loving and overtly sexually flirtatious as the plot demands – but Miller makes her feel like a real person. She and Pacino have great chemistry (which, rumour has it, also carried over into real life) and de Palma shoots their scenes with an old-school romanticism and a steady camera, which contrasts with the disjointed sweep and Dutch angles he uses elsewhere.

Sometimes these flashy angles get on my nerves. de Palma often feels like he’s trying too hard, rather than stretching his muscles. Saying that, he’s a master of the set-piece. The film has two action set-pieces and both simmer with tension and inventiveness. One involves a bungled drugs deal in a dingy bar. The other a thrilling chase sequence in Grand Central Station, a deliciously shot mixture of great editing and daring extended single shots. Sequences like this bring memories, inevitably, of Scarface and it’s tempting to see Carlito’s Way as a spiritual sequel – as if Tony Montana had been arrested and changed his ways.

Perhaps a testament to how good Carlito’s Way is (or rather how much I enjoy it) is that I even think Sean Penn is terrific in it. Penn is one of those actors I find tryingly self-important (both professionally and personally). But his weaselly lawyer, a hair-trigger addict, nowhere near as smart and adept as he thinks he is, is marvellous. Penn’s performance is a whipper-cracker mix of slimy self-confidence and arrogant blindness, with moments of curiously underplayed vulnerability that makes it make sense why Carlito remains so loyal to him. It’s one of Penn’s best, most controlled performances, a virtuoso performance of whining weakness.

Carlito’s Way is part pulp gangster thriller, part character study humanely outlining the impossible difficulty of changing our stars. Carlito may be ready to jack in the criminal world – but he continues to live the life of the criminal while persuading himself he isn’t. The whole film has a tragic inevitability about it – and would do even without the framing device. Carlito wants out – but he wants to rush to get the investment he needs, and walking the shadow line is the only thing he knows how to do. It’s a great modern tragedy.

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Pacino and Depp deliver low-key, carefully controlled, sensitive performances: how often do you get to write that?

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Al Pacino (Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Joseph Pistone/Donnie Brasco), Michael Madsen (Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano), Bruno Kirby (Nicky Santora), Anne Heche (Maggie Pistone), James Russo (“Paulie” Cersani), Željko Ivanek (Tim Curley), Gerry Becker (Dean Blandford), Robert Miano (Al “Sonny Red” Indelicato), Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Giamatti (FBI Technicians)

The Mafia film genre is a crowded market, so it’s a brave film maker who enters it with something a little different. But we get that with Donnie Brasco, which focuses on the bottom rungs of the Mafia ladder, suggesting that being a low-ranking member of “this thing of ours” is in many ways quite similar to being a corporate drone in the big city, only with more killing.

Joseph Pistone aka Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) is an undercover FBI agent, infiltrating the New York Mafia. He wins the trust of “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a Mafia hitman. Drawn deeper into the Mafia world, the pressure builds on Pistone/Brasco, who slowly becomes more and more indistinguishable from the criminals he spends his time with – and feels guilty about the deadly fate Lefty will meet if the Mafia discover he inadvertently introduced a rat into the family.

Newell’s film (from Paul Attanasio’s excellent script) is a dry deconstruction of the gangster life, bringing it closer to the grind of the 9-5. The criminals put in long hours to earn the income they need to push up to those above them. Class distinctions abound – in one scene, Sonny Black (a good performance of ambition and resentment from Michael Madsen) forces a smile onto his face while mob bosses laugh openly at his dress sense. Lefty whines like a mule about everything from his lack of recognition to how put-upon he is (never has a mantra about 26 hits over a lifetime sounded more like complaints about constant filing requests). He could easily be mistaken half the time for a harrassed office junior who never made the grade. When violence comes, it’s sudden, graphic, confused and brutal – a hit in a basement goes far from smoothly with one victim struggling for his life while another screams in pain.

On the other hand, the gangsters are also suggested to be maladjusted teens who never grew up. The more time Donnie spends with them, the less and less capable he becomes of relating to (or even communicating with) his wife and family. The gangsters have a routine lack of empathy for each other and treat the rules of “our thing” like a boys’ clubhouse. Many of their actions have an ill-thought-out juvenility to them: Sonny at one point steals a lion for Lefty as a gift – in a bizarre scene immediately afterwards, Lefty and Donnie feed it hamburgers through the window while it sits in the back seat of Donnie’s car. On a work-trip in Florida, the gangsters behave like kids – mucking around in the pool, delightedly going down waterflumes, burying Lefty in the sand on the beach while he sleeps. Even Lefty is overcome like a star-struck teen when meeting a famed Florida boss.

It’s not surprising that Donnie and Lefty, both outsiders in a way, are drawn together as kindred spirits in this strange, unbalanced world. Donnie obviously is an FBI agent, but Lefty is a world-weary old-timer, with a sense of honour who seems (apart from his ease with killing and violence) to be the most “normal” of the gangsters. The film is a careful construction of the growth of loyalty between these characters – particularly the slow development of Donnie’s feelings of genuine friendship towards Lefty. What’s effective is that this is a gradual process without a definable key moment. Instead, it becomes rather touching as Donnie starts to avoid moving closer to better “contacts” in order to remain close to Lefty. Donnie Brasco might be one of the few films that really gets a type of male friendship, and the unspoken emotional bonds that underpin them.

Perhaps the best things about Donnie Brasco are the two wonderful performances we get from actors who never knowlingly underplay. Watching this and Ed Wood is a reminder of the actor Johnny Depp could have been, before clowning in Pirates of the Caribbean seemed to shatter his focus. Brasco/Pistone is a brilliantly low-key presentation of a fractured personality. At first, the differentiation between the two personalities is distinct and clear – but as the film progresses, Depp allows the two to almost c/ollapse into each other. Everything from his body language to his manner of speaking slowly repositions itself as he becomes more consumed by the gangster world. Depp is also very good at not losing track of Pistone’s horror at murder and violence, while allowing the Brasco persona to take part in its aftereffects. The quiet building of guilt in his eyes at the fate he is creating for Lefty is also gently underplayed, making it more effective.

However, this is Al Pacino’s movie. It’s certainly Pacino’s last great performance: with the added frisson that he’s Michael Corleone demoted to the bottom rung of the ladder, Pacino is magnetic. Lefty is a put-upon whiner, who still has a charisma of his youth that draws Donnie (and others) in. A man of strong moral principles, who treats Donnie with a fatherly regard, uncomfortable with much of the ostentation of his fellow gangsters, he’s also a ruthless killer who blithely shrugs off his killing of an old friend. All Pacino’s bombast is only rarely deployed for impact – instead Lefty is a low-key, almost sad figure, whose chance in life has passed by.

One extraordinary scene late on deserves particular mention. I won’t spoil things too much, but Lefty prepares to leave the house after a phone call full of bad news. Carefully, sadly, he smartens himself up then returns (after saying goodbye to his wife) to gently remove his valuables and leave them in a drawer for his wife – he even carefully leaves the drawer ajar so she can find it. Setting himself before leaving the house, he takes a small look around. It’s a beautifully gentle scene, which could be overloaded with meaning from another actor, but Pacino plays it with such quiet but intense focus, and such careful precision it works brilliantly. Take a look at the scene here (warning spoilers!)

Newell’s strength as an actor’s director is apparent in all the performances, and Donnie Brasco is a film of many wonderful scenes and moments. The film never loses track of the danger of undercover heart – and several striking scenes have Pistone close to being discovered. The film is not perfect: the aim of the FBI investigation, and the impact Donnie’s work are never really made clear and the scenes involving Pistone’s homelife feel far more predictable and conventional than the rest of the movie (Anne Heche has a thankless part). But when it focuses on the two leads, and their dynamism together, it’s a damn fine film. It’s not going to challenge Goodfellas as a story of low-key hoods, but it’s certainly a worthy addition to cinema’s mafia films.