Film review: Goodfellas (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese
tl;dr: Iconic gangster biopic is still really iconic.
Goodfellas is based on the 1985 non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. Martin Scorsese wasn’t intending to do another gangster film, but changed his mind. The two ended up writing the screenplay, and it resulted in a film that, at the time of writing, is #17 on IMDb’s Top 250 list.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster,” narrates Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), starting out as a teenager (Christopher Serrone) in Brooklyn, New York, in 1955. He introduces us to his neighbourhood, and how he admired the local mafiosi. He starts skipping school to run errands and park cars for Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) and his gang of organised criminals. Henry can never become a Made guy, because he’s only half Sicilian, but he can still climb the ranks.
I found it difficult to explain the plot of Goodfellas until I realised I was approaching it wrong. It doesn’t have a straightforward plot, because it’s essentially a biopic. You follow Henry’s gangster life with James Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), how he meets his wife-to-be Karen (Lorraine Bracco), how he gets together with his girlfriend Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo), plots hits against airports, and starts dealing drugs. At times, the narrator switches to Karen.
Fans of The Sopranos will recognise not just Bracco, but Tony Sirico, Frank Vincent, Vinny Pastore and even Michael Imperioli. Fans of The Wire will recognise Isiah Whitlock Jr as a doctor. I’m still surprised to find out that Stacks Edwards is played by none other than Samuel L Jackson! He looks very different in this, but then this was filmed over 30 years ago, and I have mostly seen him in later roles.
Goodfellas is known for a number of iconic lines, and performances – it even got its own parody in the original run of Animaniacs as the “Goodfeathers”. Henry Hill laughing his head off is an oft used GIF these days. The film has had the kind of lasting cultural impact Avatar could only dream of. Goodfellas tells a great story in an entertaining way. Sure, you probably still have to enjoy gangster type films in order to appreciate it fully, but it’s far more accessible to people who don’t care for mobster films than, say, The Godfather is. (Before the subject was of any kind of interest to me, I found The Godfather to be supremely dull, but didn’t mind Goodfellas.) So that’s something. But Scorsese tends to know what he’s doing with gangster films, so there is that.
5 out of 5 coke-fuelled drives around the block.