Martin Scorsese is a very high quality director. When people talk about his films, more often than not, The Wolf of Wall Street is the first thing on the agenda. And rightly so. It’s a good film, incredibly fixating (at some points it would be rude to take your eyes off it), with some absolutely legendary lines. The upshot of it is, that every modern teenage boy wants to be Jordan Belfort. Starting from the bottom and working up to be one of the richest people ever, all the while having more fun than could be possibly imagined. Of course, Jordan Belfort was a criminal, but only in the sense of ripping people off and making them pay him for it. You wouldn’t really call him a gangster though, would you? A gangster would be someone who doesn’t need all the money in the world, because when he goes into a restaurant, all the staff know him, so they give him the best seat in the house, free wine, and a three course meal waiting for him. That’s the guy people should want to be like.
Goodfellas, released in 1990, opened people’s eyes to what life as a gangster could be like. Far be it from the old movies, where Al Capone shot a tommy gun at hordes of police, screaming as he did it. No these gangsters own the police, not that they do anything blatantly illegal. Ok they might be avoiding tax, defrauding the government, and setting fire to people’s cars, but nothing that illegal. That’s what people want to really be. Rich, surrounded by like-minded people, and safe from any major consequences.
The film has a killer soundtrack, excellent cinematography (the Copacabana continuous shot is just sublime), and sensational writing. So many classic lines that are replicated in meme and parody today, which in my view, indicates that they did a fine job in the script department. Of course the film is an adaptation of the book by Nicholas Pileggi, but as adaptations go, this is one of the greatest homages Hollywood has ever seen.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” The opening line really sets a majestic tone for what is to come. Ray Liotta plays the main man, Henry Hill, and does it well. Not amazingly, some weird acting in parts (he can’t laugh, for example), but overall he portrays the anti-hero very well throughout. But it’s his two supporting actors, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, who really shine through. Pesci actually won an Oscar for best supporting actor, and he is spectacular. It could be construed as easy to play a terrifying character in a movie, when that character is a villain (Hans Landa, John Doe, etc…). But Tommy De Vito (Pesci’s character), is not a villain, in the truest sense of the word. He plays the best friend, the comrade, and is a hilarious character, with memorable lines. But at the same time, he is a loose cannon that makes anyone who is in a room with him have their blood run cold. Excellent actor, excellent performance. The same can of course be said for De Niro. The only reason he won’t have clinched the Oscar was because Pesci got there first. He plays Jimmy Conway, the real character every kid wants to be. Oozing with class, more money than he needs, and a sheer talent for anything not quite legal. But what a performance again from him. Few people can sit, smoke, and stare at someone off camera for 30 seconds, yet still encapsulate the audience for that length of time.
Like any good Scorsese film though, things start to fall apart at around the halfway point. It’s a feature to look out for. It happens in Casino, in Wolf of Wall Street, and in Goodfellas. It’s the tipping point, where the main character is on top of the world, and cannot go any higher. So the only place is down. Crashing down. Suddenly Goodfellas goes from an inspirational movie for wannabe gangsters, to a vicious warning for anyone considering it. Members of the gang die, or get arrested, or turn to drugs. Any one of these three could cause a downfall of a crime empire. Unfortunately, all three happen in quick succession, and it is a wonderful display of filmmaking then to see it all come down. There’s not any fighting, no action scenes, that’s what makes it all so brilliant. No shootouts or fancy cinematic tricks like slow mo or CGI (they were fancy in 1990). Just showing the aftermath of some brutal murders to show the sheer terror that the gangsters of old could instil in people.
Of course in amongst this chaos there are still moments of beauty. I still cook my pasta sauces based on the techniques shown to me in the prison scene. A scene that makes you wonder why we have prisons in the first place, if all the criminals do is drink fine wine and eat steak. But these cannot be appreciated amongst the downward spiral the main characters face. The death, beating and betrayal shows the film as more than a flick about gangsters having it all their own way. I do believe it’s one of the greatest films ever made, and no matter how many Jordan Belforts or Henry Hills there are in this world, there won’t be a movie quite like this one, ever again.
(I have decided to start rating the films afterwards, as sometimes my writing won’t convey what I really feel about the film, so this should be a helpful hint,)