**** (out of ****)
Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, based on the book by Pileggi.
Rated R. 148 minutes. 1990.
As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.
These words, both a fond reminiscence and an ominous foreboding, open Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a brutal epic that takes inventory of the blue-collar mafia of Brooklyn from the point-of-view of an associate and rising star, Henry Hill. But Scorsese’s film, adapted by the director and co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi from Pileggi’s book on the subject, never shies away from the fact that the people at the forefront of their narrative are bad, very bad, people. They are members of the Cicero crime family, headed by Paul or “Paulie” to those who know him intimately, and Hill’s mentors are Jimmy Conway, a truck hijacker, and Tommy DeVito, a psychotic ex-armed-robber without a conscience. The film tracks nearly 15 years of history, from the family’s involvement in the Air France Robbery of 1967 until the moment that Hill, played with alternating but nuanced arrogance and eagerness by Ray Liotta, entered the Witness Protection Program after turning family secrets into the Federal authorities. In between, Scorsese and Pileggi approach the gangster epic as an American story, avoiding most of the temptation in a “just the facts, ma’am” approach for something more character-based, while still adopting the forward style of a biographical picture. Hill meets Karen, a tough, spirited, opinionated, independent woman who finds it galling that Hill doesn’t call after their first night together, and Lorraine Bracco’s performance is the film’s good-hearted center, even as Karen becomes embroiled with a thinly veiled lifestyle she’s not stupid enough to think doesn’t exist. These are intelligent people, doing their job, and when you’re a man, your job is your honor. The cast is uniformly stellar, with Robert De Niro offering slick professionalism as leader-of-the-pack Conway and a reliably fire-ball Joe Pesci as DeVito, a man whose sense of humor is accentuated by a lack of remorse and a guttering violent streak. Michael Ballhaus’ live-wire cinematography swerves in and around these violent lives, keeping in time with Thelma Schoonmaker’s sleek editing. Goodfellas is a great film, Scorsese’s finest, and the reason might be that he approaches the end of this particular story grasping a tragic sense of the easily avoidable.