Classic how? How the f**k am I classic, Henry? etc, etc, etc...
It's difficult to think of new things to say about a movie so universally adored that pretty much everything has already been said. Representing the unification of several prodigal talents who were arguably at the top of their game, it was going to take an extinction level event to stop Goodfellas from becoming a cinematic and cultural phenomenon, and seeing as we haven't all gone the way of the dodo I guess it's easy enough to assess the outcome of that particular scenario. In fact, the list of negatives reduces down to such a thin vapour that in picking fault you have to scrape the bottom of the pot and point out that in one or two scenes the continuity between characters' stances during cut-aways is occasionally a bit dodgy. That and the fact there are no naked honeys thrusting their chests in the camera and indulging in lesbian orgies, but I digress...
While it may be easy to level criticism at director Martin Scorsese in the wake of such pseudo-epic hum-drum as Gangs Of New York and the well-intentioned but frankly pap Kundun, one has only to cast a glance back to the early nineties and this bad boy of a gangster yarn for all sins to be forgiven. Based on author Nick Pileggi's true-to-life novel Wiseguy, the movie charts the rise and fall of mafia goon Henry Hill (played here by a never-better Ray Liotta) from impish young whippersnapper, to high-flying Family man and downward into his drug-fuelled fall from grace and subsequent placement in the government's Witness Protection Program. The son of an Italian mother and an Irish father, Hill was too 'impure' to become top-flight mafia royalty (the priviledge of becoming a 'made' man being reserved for Sicillian pure-bloods), but he certainly ascended to dizzy heights of respect and unscrupulous earnings, masterminding as he did such audacious feats as the famous Lufthansa heist.
While the source material is truly a rich seam of potential, with any number of individual episodes ripe for development as movies in their own right, Scorsese took the time and effort to do the whole text justice, working with Pileggi himself to adapt the novel into screenplay form. Never one to take the lazy option, Scorcese goes to extraordinary lengths to weave together not just the relationship between Henry and his wife Karen, but also the inextricably linked likes of Jimmy "The Gent" Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (an Oscar-winning Joe Pesci). That he does so in a fashion that is never less than utterly engrossing would be achievement enough, but Scorsese manages to merge a deft piece of scripting and actor-wrangling with the kind of technical excellence most other directors will never come within a million miles of.
Using a mostly linear narrative, the director hints at things to come with an out-of-synch opening that sets the tone nicely and leaves you in no doubt as to the true nature of the beast despite the "pasta and family" tone of the first two reels. Liberal doses of freeze-frame and a Liotta voiceover set the tone while Scorsese assails us with the kind of tactical genius usually reserved for Kasparov chess matches, culminating in the now immortal steadicam shot through the bowels of the Copa club. Check, for example, Tommy's "how am I funny?" skit over dinner at the restaurant. Using mid shots instead of the more conventional close-up option, we learn everything we need to know about the character's temperament from the reactions of those around. The guy's a psychopath? No shit; the bloke next to him clearly expects bullets to fly.
Of course all this technical proficiency counts for little without the necessary backup from the players, and boy do these guys bring home Scorsese's bacon. As Henry Hill, Liotta achieved the performance that defined his career, and only with the recent Narc has he come even vaguely close to repeating this success. Despite the skill of his portrayal, Liotta is overshadowed by the veterans of the piece. Everybody remembers Pesci as DeVito, truly a monster of a man who Hill himself describes as a "sick fuck"; the kind of guy who frequently killed people quite literally for looking at him the wrong way. Pesci makes up for his lack of physical stature in the role with a performance that surely ranks as one of the most terrifying in history, transcending genre boundaries and placing him alongside the likes of Hannibal Lecter. Golden statue well deserved? believe it.
Believe also that although his turn as Conway seems devoid of such flambuoyant emoting, De Niro has only ever been arguably better in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. It's all about the nuance with Bobby D, and his deliverance thereof borders on beyond clinical. Check out the bar scene where he decides to whack everyone involved in the execution of the Lufthansa job; no dialogue, just a flicker of the eyes and a slight turn of the mouth that belies exactly what is going on in his head. It just doesn't get any better. He might not wear his will to kill on his sleeve like Tommy, but The Bobster is clearly not a man to be trifled with.
Now, is this Scorsese's best film? Ooooooooh. How the hell do you weigh this, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver against each other? Ever the pioneer in my quest to simplify the measurement of the unquantifiable I shall consider it thus; Raging Bull, technical masterpiece that it is, features grown men beating the living shit out of each other but nobody gets shot. Third place. Taxi Driver does have a brief but gratifying bout of shooty-shooty bang-bangs in the final reel as well as the convenience store incident, but there's not nearly enough swearing or Italian-American colloquialisms. Second place. Goodfellas has the following arsenal; linguistic genius like "fageddaboutit", "dat ting we talked about" and "whaddya want from me?", a veritable cornucopia of gun/ice pick/bludgeon and head interfaces and, cherry of all cherries, Joe Pesci randomly killing people whilst screaming "fuck" at the top of his voice every six seconds/second word (whichever is most frequent). Distill it all down to these few key indicators and there really is no competition.
Goodfellas is the perfect blend of cinema as art and popular entertainment (how is it entertainment? Like a clown? Like it amuses you? Like it's fuckin' here to amuse you?), and marrying artistic excellence with mainstream appeal as it does makes it, in my opinion, truly the superior of it's peers. That nobody involved has achieved such lightning in a bottle since is not necessarily the result of any individual failings, but purely because Goodfellas achieved the rarest of cinematic planetary alignments. Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci would come close with the similarly themed Casino years later, but for now let us not lament the fact we haven't seen anything as good since; let's instead celebrate the fact mere mortals like you and I were gifted with Goodfellas in the first place.
Disko has awarded this movie 5 out of 5 "5's Not Enough" Units.
Robert De Niro (Jimmy Conway)
Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito)
Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill)