Goodfellas (1990) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, sexual content, drug content, and pervasive language
Running Time: 145 min.

Cast: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Chuck Low, Debi Mazar, Frank DiLeo, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Imperioli, Illeana Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson
Cameo: Jerry Vale, Henny Youngman, Vincent Pastore, Vincent Gallo, Bo Dietl

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi (based on his book, "Wiseguy")
Review published February 20, 2007

Characterizations are the key to this fantastic mob story, perhaps only rivaled by The Godfather as the best of them all.  Violent, compelling, daring and rich, Scorsese (The King of Comedy, The Last Waltz) crafts Nicholas Pileggi's original nonfictional tale, mostly based on real-life wise guys, into something close to a masterpiece.  That he allows his actors the freedom to improvise and fit their dialogue into their own mold shows how much Scorsese is actor's director, and it certainly helps when he has such a fantastic ensemble to work with.  Beautifully shot, beguilingly complex, Goodfellas would set the pattern for all stories about the mob to follow, including the acclaimed series, "The Sopranos".  It's as vivid, robust, memorable, and quotable as any film of the 1990s.

Ray Liotta (Field of Dreams, Cop Land) stars as Henry Hill, who as a young boy idolized the gangsters in his Brooklyn neighborhood, wanting to grow up to be just like them.  Starting off with a few odd jobs here and there, he gets his wish, working his way up the ranks of the Lucchese family hierarchy, headed by Paul Cicero (Sorvino, Romeo + Juliet), where he learns all the tricks of the mob trade.  He makes his cash, woos his way into marriage with his spunky girl Karen (Bracco, The Basketball Diaries) but the company he keeps threatens to undo everything he has built up, starting with the killing of a "made man", an untouchable mob entity, who insults neurotic Hill cohort, Tommy DeVito (Pesci, Lethal Weapon 2). As they reach for further conquests, they begin to try to assert some autonomy, but find that the heat is ratcheted to uncomfortable degrees once the cops, fellow rivals, Pauly, and even their own inner circle fight for power and the almighty dollar.

Pileggi never paints these men as good or bad, just born into a life that seems not only normal, but very respectable to many in the neighborhood.  That's not to say the life of a gangster is completely glamorized, as the ups are spotlighted as well as the downs.  Where Goodfellas excels is in its authenticity, with a visceral approach (the gliding camerawork popularized here is now legendary) that dazzles and dialogue that captures the essence of the life unlike any before it.  You don't feel like you're watching mere movie characters, but flesh and blood people (though admittedly still larger than life in some respects), and while the film's length isn't short, it feels like there are at least a dozen equally interesting stories and characters that could have spun off of Henry's main tale, while still never losing a beat. 

Although Liotta and De Niro (Midnight Run, The Untouchables) are as fantastic as you'd expect, their characters are often upstaged by strong turns by Pesci and Bracco, both of whom command attention whenever they appear on screen.  Though the film would go on to be a classic film, Pesci's performance was the only aspect of the film to gain the Oscar, and though diminutive and somewhat comical, he proves to be far more menacing than any other character, willing to insult, injure, and even kill at his own whim.  Meanwhile, Bracco provides the necessary other side to the story -- a woman who is both disgusted by the life her husband leads as well succumb to the raw seduction of it.  I suppose that says a great deal about why many viewers are fascinated by tales of the mafia; we despise the things that they do, while we are oddly envious that they have the courage, temerity, and wherewithal to take what they want, when they want it, and never feel bad about it in the slightest.

However, whether or not you love these characters isn't crucial to loving Goodfellas -- but you do have to love movies.  Everything from top to bottom is superb, with actors delivering their finest, moments that linger with you long after viewing them, and Scorsese's ever-roving eye for the life of the people in this Brooklyn neighborhood over several decades.  Pulling together old-fashioned gangster drama staples and incorporating them into real-life anecdotes, Goodfellas is one of the rare films that hits home both as a harrowing true story and as a finely-crafted piece of art, allowing us to feel the reality of the situations, while still able to look at it from a distance and admire just how al of the elements come together cinematically to make each scene work splendidly.

As dark and brutal as the film is, it is also surprisingly humorous, romantic, exquisitely detailed, and visually poetic.  The viciousness is what you'll remember, but it's the quieter, more subtle touches that keep you enthralled in between the bursts of chilling intensity.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo