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The jarring opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas plunges the viewers smack into the deadly fast-track realm of the professional mobster. Henry Hill, a defiantly proud young mobster, is driving with James Conway and Tommy DeVito on a deserted upstate highway.
Annoyed by a thumping sound, they pull over. The men stand facing the back of the car, their angry faces caught in the red glow of the backlights. The trunk is opened. Jammed inside is a twitching body covered with blood-soaked tablecloths. Conway and DeVito fire more bullets into the corpse, finishing the job with a butcher knife. For a few fleeting moments Hill’s face registers a look of disgust – the only hint that he has ever entertained any doubts about his chosen profession.
The mood turns abruptly upbeat as Hill, in a voice-over, confesses, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” It’s the mid-’50s, and in a series of cheerful fast-forward scenes, Scorsese shows just how Hill, a brash half-Irish, half-Sicilian kid from Brooklyn, became the favorite errand boy of Paul Cicero, a local capo. He’s a starstruck groupie, dazzled by the obvious power of the so-called “wiseguys.” His boyish crush on the mob pays off. By age 13, Hill is dressing for success in the traditional dark suits. Soon he’s working full-time for James Conway, “one of the most feared guys in the city.”
He’s on a career high when he reluctantly agrees to a blind date with Karen. It’s hate at first sight. But there’s a definite attraction, and Karen, offering her comical comments in a voice-over, tells why she dates a mob prince. In a virtuoso camera sequence, Hill takes her to the Copacabana, sweeping her past the long line at the entrance, through the kitchen and into the main room, where waiters rush to set up a front row table.
Hill is such a well-known-wiseguy-about-town, singer Bobby Vinton sends over bottles of Dom Perignon. Even after Hill pistol-whips a pesty neighbor, Karen cannot resist marrying him. As a member of the “family,” her life consists of playing cards with the other mob wives and receiving a generous shopping allowance. In the meantime, Hill acquires a mistress, whom he sees Friday nights.
His world has grown increasingly vicious. Hill does his share of “whacking guys,” acting as if it’s “no big deal.” Still. He’s on a roll until he violates the rules of his capo by dealing in drugs. By now he’s in a cocaine-induced state of paranoia, a mood encouraged by the fact that a helicopter seems to be tailing him. The camera exposes his disintegration, his final frantic rush to regain control of his life by cooking his favorite pasta sauce for his family while trying to unload some guns and arrange another deal.
With bold realism and accuracy, Scorsese forcefully depicts the lifestyle of the rich and infamous Goodfellas – The volatile movie, which is based on Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction best seller “Wiseguy,” treats the seductive pull of “the life,” the celebrity status of men who, as Karen notes, are not “9 to 5 guys.”
Goodfellas movie’s blunt brutality is tough to take. In The Godfather films, the mob family achieved the stature of tragic figures. Here, the trio of macho gangsters is so amoral and socially unredeemable that spending 2 and a half hour with them is difficult. But there’s no denying the movie’s brilliant flourishes
The acting in Goodfellas is first-rate. Catherine Scorsese (the director’s mother) provides much-needed comic relief as DeVito’s mother, who proves maternal love is blind by serving him dinner after a rubout. Lorraine Bracco is ruefully funny as Karen. Joe Pesci is thoroughly frightening as the explosive, foulmouthed DeVito. Robert De Niro is increasingly menacing as Conway, the cool mastermind of airport heists. Ray Liotta is extremely convincing as Hill, the grinning glamor boy who revels in the big bucks and star treatment.
One stays detached from Goodfellas characters, but Scorsese successfully manages to smash all the abruptly romantic myths about the mob with this shocking, harsh honest portrait of a slick yuppie gangster who couldn’t stand being “an average nobody.”
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