Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi
(based on the book WISEGUY by Nicholas Pileggi)
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Frank Vincent, Samuel L. Jackson
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill (Liotta) reminisces in the opening of GOODFELLAS. The criminals Hill refers to are REAL gangsters as in organized crime, as in the mafia, as in pay them for protection or you get shot without a moment of regret from anybody in their inner circle. GOODFELLAS is a 2+ hour look at life inside the mafia as told by Henry Hill (who was a real person and most of this stuff really happened). It also happens to be the best piece of cinema that Scorsese has delivered in his entire career. The man makes phenomenal films, but unless something unexpected comes along, GOODFELLAS will remain his crowning achievement.
The broad timeline of the film is 1955 to 1980. About 95% of the story is also narrated from Henry Hill. Starting off as a young worker for the higher-ups, Henry works his way into the mob from childhood and matures into adulthood surrounded by this corrupt lifestyle. He steals. He cheats. He commits some violent acts and finds love in a young woman named Karen. She acts as a secondary narrator for certain points (hence the other 5% narration of the film). This seems like it could have made for a mistake, but Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing from this decision. We see that Karen is a complex individual too and she damn well knows what her boyfriend/fiancé/husband does for a living. It’s just happens to be a turn on for her. Other memorable characters include Paul Cicero (Sorvino), the mob boss who acts as a sort of would-be father towards Henry, and the duo of Jimmy The Gent (De Niro) and Tommy (Pesci), Henry’s two best friends and partners in crime.
Both De Niro and Pesci characters outshine Ray Liotta’s protagonist, which could be seen as a tad ironic. Their characters seem far more interesting for a variety of reasons. We never see Henry Hill kill anybody (though I have no doubt that he probably did off at least one person in real life and it wasn’t shown in this film), but De Niro and Pesci seem to flip at the drop of a hat. In fact, Pesci borders from being funny to frightening in a matter of seconds (one memorable scene is his reaction to being called “a funny guy”). Even though they’re violent criminals, Scorsese does an incredible job of bringing these people to life in an enjoyable way. They feel like old friends and Liotta’s narration makes them seem like great stand-up guys. This is especially impressive after a scene of Pesci shooting a guy for no good reason and De Niro going crazy. This is where the true genius of GOODFELLAS comes in…
The story doesn’t glamorize life in organized crime, but the character of Henry Hill sure seems to. In fact, the viewer is seduced into his way of thinking right along with him. Even a few prison scenes seem like Henry is spending an extended vacation in a 5-star-hotel room. This all makes for a brutal wake-up call as his real downward spiral begins. People who were once his friends are now not be trusted at all, while past actions have severe consequences. The subject matter of the film is about the mafia and the camera doesn’t shy away from showing graphic violence, some of which is seen as it happens and others are after the fact (e.g. a haunting montage of many different corpses who bit the big one in horrific ways). The film never gets unpleasant to watch though, because Liotta’s narration accompanies most of it. This technique keeps the viewer at ease even if he is watching the Billy Batts scene (you’ll know it when you see it and for the record, it’s one of my favorite movie scenes ever).
GOODFELLAS also has an amazing use of soundtrack. I can’t recall more than one piece of original music for the film, because songs set in the time period that each scene takes place in are used. This encompasses the entire film with a sort of realistic authenticity of being there. The compilation of songs is one of the all-time best soundtracks of its kind. The film never has time to drag, because there’s so much ground to cover. Some parts are more necessary than others, but every scene is enjoyable and important in its own way. As far as the running time itself is considered, I wish this film could have gone on for a GODFATHER length. I would still have been enthralled, because it’s so well-done and interesting.
With GOODFELLAS, Scorsese works magic on many different layers. He lets Henry Hill seduce the viewer in loving this dangerous illegal lifestyle right along with him, but is sure to remind them that things don’t usually work out too well for these gangsters (as we see on many occasions throughout). He makes a mob boss and two hardened killers feel like a fatherly figure and two old friends, which makes them seem that much more dangerous when their “business” sides come out. The use of songs is absolutely phenomenal and there isn’t a single wasted minute. Scorsese has since gone on to tackle the mob in two of his later works (CASINO and THE DEPARTED). As amazing as those films are, I feel that GOODFELLAS is one that he left his mark with. This is the film I’ll remember Scorsese for!