GOODFELLAS may be Martin Scorsese's most popular movie, and for good
reason: it is as entertaining as hell. Of course, that's
your definition of entertainment includes nonstop extreme profanity,
vicious beatings and tons of bloodshed, as well as an entire cast of
unsympathetic characters. If that is the case, then this movie can be
deliciously addictive, and after one or two viewings, you may find
yourself quoting not only the most famous lines of the movie, ("Funny,
like I'm a clown, I amuse you?") but also the obscure ones like "I
didn't put too much onions" or "Shane?".
Ray Liotta stars as Henry Hill, a young hoodlum who goes from the pinnacle of success in the gangster world to the anonymity of the Witness Protection Program. Liotta, a fine actor, comes closest to eliciting sympathy, if only because his character seems to have a wisp of a conscience, having second thoughts about the incessant "whacking" that goes on around him. Robert De Niro gives one of his seminal performances as Jimmy, a cool, calculating hood who thinks nothing of executing his closest friends one by one to cover his tracks after a particularly lucrative airport heist. De Niro's performance teeters on the edge of self-parody, especially with his habit of repeating his dialogue ("What did I tell you? What did I tell you?"), but he still displays the subtlety of his earlier years, in which a look in his eyes speaks volumes. We rarely see Jimmy partaking in a murder, but his character is made all the more frightening during a sequence in which body after body of his fellow wiseguys begin to show up in the strangest places.
But good as they are, Liotta and De Niro are overshadowed by a riveting performance by Joe Pesci as the volatile Tommy, a man who will kill anybody at any time for any reason without hesitation. Along with his turn as the title character in the comedy MY COUSIN VINNY, it is Pesci's best performance in a career that, for reasons unknown, has not been as prolific as it should be. When the camera is on Pesci, there is no looking away, and his Tommy is a Cody Jarrett for a new generation, a clearly insane man around whom nobody is safe, not the kid who serves drinks on poker night or the supposedly untouchable "made man" fresh out of prison.
Fans of HBO's The Sopranos will have a fun time playing "Spot the Hood" as several actors who would go on to fame in the cable series can be seen in parts big and small. The three most prominent are Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli and Frank Vincent, but several other Sopranos players can be spotted in passing.
Scorsese directs GOODFELLAS with an inexhaustible amount of energy, deftly using classic rock hits as background music for some of the film's most memorable scenes. He coaxes tremendous performances out of his entire cast, including Bracco as Henry's wife and Paul Sorvino as the resident capo di tutti. The film only runs out of steam in its final moments in which Henry's world comes crashing down on him. It may be that the sequence comes out of nowhere without a proper setup, or that (spoiler alert) Joe Pesci's character is no longer with us at that point, but it just doesn't bring the film to an end with the kind of bang one would expect. Nevertheless, GOODFELLAS is a classic gangster film, just a notch below its polar opposite in theme and style, Coppola's THE GODFATHER. And yet, in a decision that should have gotten somebody whacked, GOODFELLAS, one of the top five film of the 1990s, lost to that boring white-guilt crapfest DANCES WITH WOLVES at the Oscars. ½ - JB.