WWII veteran Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) reminisces about his time as muscle to Philadelphia mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his friendship with legendary – and legendarily disappeared – union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Martin Scorsese’s return to the mob movie is nearly 30 years removed from his previous high watermark Goodfellas, and the time seems to have given New York’s finest some perspective. The Irishman isn’t here to tell the story of one man like Henry Hill or Casino’s Ace Rothstein – it’s here to destroy the pedestal the gangster movie has been placed on. Its entire 209 minutes (rather like the 180 minutes of The Wolf Of Wall Street, the duration flies by) feels like a rejoinder to all the wrong lessons learned by subsequent film-makers who took notes on Goodfellas style, but ignored the fact that it spends its final 30 minutes in a hellish downward spiral culminating with its main character trapped in the purgatory of Palookaville. In a way, it’s more accurate to say that The Irishman’s closest progenitor isn’t Goodfellas or Casino at all, but another later career masterpiece about the Italian-American experience and the follies of a lifetime of toxic masculinity, Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America. 

That film, of course, had De Niro as a man with more regrets than a Sinatra residency, but this film dares to take all the romance out of the genre. The nostalgic sepia-tones of the New York as seen by America and Coppola’s landmark Godfather movies are absent here, instead offering low-lit restaurant booths and dark street corners that don’t suggest cosiness, only shadows for dangerous men to end another’s life with a nod or a wink. It’s telling that the spectre of death is never actually referred to by the characters – “I heard you paint houses?” asks Pacino’s Hoffa, which not only namechecks the title of the book Steven Zaillian’s elegantly structured screenplay is based on, but tells us everything we need to know about the people we’re watching and their denial of the destruction their violence causes. By the end, the euphemisms that signal these denials are rendered moot, replaced by ultimate reckoning. 

Which might make it sound like a complete drag, a future set text to be endured rather than enjoyed. Yet The Irishman more than delivers, the performances making the already sizzling script soar into the stratosphere. The entire cast, from Stephen Graham’s livewire union boss to The Wire’s Domenick Lombardozzi (unrecognisable and aged by decades under layers of physical make-up) to returning Mean Streets alum Harvey Keitel are stellar, but it’s that front three that are imperious. At some point you might catch yourself realising you’re not watching the Holy Trinity of Italian-American acting, but seeing them inhabit their roles and become their characters in a way they haven’t done for years.

De Niro is more alive here than he has been in nearly two decades, and there are long stretches of the film where he allows Sheeran’s self-doubt to flicker across what others take to be a placid facade. Joe Pesci, meanwhile, is miraculous. His understated delivery is a counterpoint to the explosions of Tommy DeVito or Nicky Santoro, the performance relying on softly spoken menace and knowing looks that are all the more lethal for coming from a place of rational thought rather than spontaneous petulance – no “Funny how?” fireworks here. The film’s depiction of Jimmy Hoffa, on the other hand, is an egotistical, charismatic force of nature who could really only be played by Al Pacino. He illuminates every scene he’s in, a darkly comic highlight being one particular debate about tardiness that goes from mildly irritated to fisticuffs in a few choice lines.

This humour underlies the entire film, a typically Scorsese touch that here tells a few home truths, especially in that final half hour when the darkness takes hold (when one character asks who whacked another, the brutally deadpan response is: “Cancer”). There have been films told from the perspective of regretful men – Noodles in Once Upon A Time In America, or William Munny in Unforgiven spring to mind – but part of their tragedy concerned their awareness of their crimes and misdeeds and the need to provide their own salvation come the end. Here, the end of the line comes with the too-late realisation that, not only will there will be no salvation for a life of murder and brutality, but that such a life never mattered in the first place. It’s a rumination that could only come from Scorsese and this stable of actors, and it’s a monumental epic that demands to be seen and contemplated.

The Irishman is on limited release around the UK at present.