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By the time a key witness comes forward and puts a stop to all the crime in GoodFellas the relief is practically serene. It means no more horrifying murders, no more husbands cheating on their wives, no more double-crossings, no more red-eyed cocaine binges, and no more having to stir that tomato sauce.
But GoodFellas also serves as a sign of the conclusion to one of Martin Scorsese’s most brutal but brilliant films, a wonderful, relentless experience about the single-minded pursuit of crime life. Suddenly Scorsese, who with Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma led the “significant directors” pack in the 1970s, stakes the first authoritative claim of the ’90s.
Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s true story, “Wiseguy,” GoodFellas film is seen (and narrated) from the perspective of Henry (Ray Liotta), a child of Irish and Sicilian parents who joins the mob and begins a challenging underworld career. “It was a glorious time,” he says, talking about his lucrative, wonderful adolescence with characters like Johnny “Roastbeef”, Freddy “No Nose” and Jimmy “Two Times” (a repetitive kind who says such things as, “I’m going to get the papers, get the papers”).
Working for protection-racket head honcho Paulie (Paul Sorvino), Henry turns into one of the “wiseguys,” or “goodfellas,” involving classy Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and crazy Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). They work hard – a bit head-cracking here, a bloody murder there, and money everywhere. It’s a restless orgy of profiteering, a joy ride, one hell of a living.
“For us to live any other way was nuts,” says Henry. “It was just our routine. You didn’t even think about it.”
When Henry marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco), the movie’s initially heady movements change to a minor, even bloodier key. Everyone gets deeper into the abyss, which has to do with a big $6 million score. As a strong-willed woman, Karen is against her husband’s mysterious criminal and extramarital lifestyle, yet even she can’t get away from the fall, the comeuppance that challenges everyone. GoodFellas film has turned into a scary nightmare of senseless violence, feverish drug dealing, tears and paranoia. Scorsese builds up the anxiety with one acid rock-era song after another; they segue perfectly into each other. The narcs are circling overhead. You want to scream for air.
The performances by everyone are stunning, standout. Liotta persuasively rings the changes from bright-eyed punk to maniacal-eyed pro. De Niro is at his seamless best, his face and body a virtuoso instrument of human gesture. As Tommy, who’s just as likely to spin an interesting anecdote as shoot a waiter cold in the heart, Pesci is unforgettably menacing and endearing.
Scorsese seems to have gone for broke. But GoodFellas which he scripted with the help of Pileggi, is not simply just a feature-length random killing spree. It’s an unleashing of his talents. There’s a gutsy passion there, as well as a horrifying, unblinking view of humanity. Artistically at least, Scorsese has succeeded at making crime pay.