Warner Bros. // 1990 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // March 5th, 2007
"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
With the gangster movie gaining the top award in Hollywood this year, it's fitting to explore other films within the genre. Thankfully, Warner Brothers has recently released this other Scorsese achievement, which went grossly unacknowledged during its day yet is rightfully given the red carpet treatment in this new high-definition release.
Young Henry Hill looks out his window and marvels at the barely covert activities of the New York mob members operating out of the taxi garage across the street. He admires their lifestyle, one that seems to garner all manner of riches and respect, and is eager to join their ranks someday, somehow. As a teen, Henry becomes a gofer to the 'fellas across the way and gets himself into the good graces of mob boss Paul 'Paulie' Cicero (Paul Sorvino, Dead Broke), earning protection early on and garnering handsome payouts. He grows in the ranks and becomes a key operative in the mob's big Lufthansa heist some years later, working alongside smooth-talking Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull) and unpredictable Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, Casino). The three "wiseguys" find themselves in trouble, though, when their individual aspirations to climb to the top result in actions that would prompt a harsh response from boss Paulie. Henry finds himself weaving in and out of trouble, be it the murder of other mob members, unfaithfulness in his marriage to wide-eyed Karen (Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos), or involvement in the severely frowned-upon drug trade. As his world starts to splinter as a result of his excesses and recklessness, Henry soon discovers that being one of the "goodfellas" doesn't ensure he'll remain untouchable.
While Director Martin Scorsese has long explored the gangster genre in his film work, Goodfellas is still his masterpiece (even when considering his long-overdue recognition for 2006's The Departed). In a way, the crime committed was overlooking Goodfellas during the 1991 Oscar campaign. In a year that offered the likes of Dances with Wolves, Ghost, and Dick Tracy as competition, the truth is there was no competition to Scorsese's achievement. Although the film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, it wound up securing only one statuette, for Joe Pesci as Best Supporting Actor. By and large, the picture was notoriously snubbed for its consummate achievement, as well as the individual elements that should have gained it awards for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing (this still not accounting for the total lack of recognition paid to Michael Ballhaus' remarkable cinematography). Without a doubt, a crime was committed in the form of the picture's lack of acknowledgement, and a "make-up call" some 16 years later -- deserved though it is -- cannot erase what was done and left undone all those years ago.
With almost two decades of perspective now, to look at Goodfellas is to look at a film that is incredibly fresh and entertaining, as if it had been produced just yesterday. It's like a good book that you simply can't put down; it's like an entrancing song that you can't avoid tapping your foot to; and, in its most base element, it's like a display of human carnage that you simply cannot resist looking at. It commands your attention -- demands it, frankly -- knowing that you will stand fast to see what will happen next. Scorsese achieves this irresistible pull through a perfect juxtaposition of the egregious affronts against the mob members with the lavishness of their lives. In his adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's book, Wiseguy, Scorsese achieves a flow of lyrical quality that entrances us just as Henry himself had been entranced by the goings on in front of and around him. Through excellent use of point-of-view camera perspectives and voiceover revelations, we're guided through Henry's odyssey as he lives it, granted a rare opportunity to marvel at it all alongside him. It's almost impossible to resist.
The key draw of the film, though, is its wicked sense of nostalgia, Hill speaking of his time as a goodfella like the archetypal "good old days." As he states in his voiceover, he didn't know any better and never saw life differently, and therefore figured this is how life was to be lived and enjoyed. A driving sentiment that anyone shares when they wistfully recall when times were "better," Hill's nostalgic waxing for that criminal life full of coercion, extortion, hits, drugs, and even marital deception sends a shiver up a working stiff's spine. According to Hill, anyone could be among the lowly ranks of blue-collar existence, but why not enjoy preferential treatment -- never having to wait in line, and always having the best that life had to offer. That is, what could easily be taken from others day in and day out. Again, the intoxicating juxtaposition for viewers is that while Henry and the others enjoy the fruits of their ill-gotten gain with nary a scruple disturbed, the violence that permeates their actions is stark, startling, and difficult for us outsiders to reconcile. Henry shrugs it all off as just another day in the life, leaving us anxious about when his day of reckoning might come. Henry seems to rarely entertain this notion, further adding to the alluring bravado on screen for the largest part of the picture.
Scorsese directed the film with such precision and attention to detail that it's unconscionable he was overlooked in favor of Kevin Costner (!). He maintained a perfectly flowing narrative, ensured spot-on performances by the veteran ensemble cast, and effectively engaged the audience for the entire 145-minute running time. The point here isn't to open old wounds of Academy indiscretions, but rather to remind that, in light of his achievement with 2006's The Departed, there is an even better picture that has gone before, one that should immediately be examined alongside the recently awarded film.
Warner Bros. had released Goodfellas in the HD-DVD format in May 2006, the early release intended to lend support to the emerging technology a mark of the film's stature. HD-DVD enthusiasts immediately lauded the disc, acknowledging both its cinematic excellence and its technological superiority over previous Standard Definition releases. It wouldn't be until January 2007 that the film would arrive in the competing Blu-ray format, largely due to Sony's difficulty in launching their high-definition format. Thankfully, Warner Brothers has seen fit to ignore the war between the formats, openly supporting both technologies and, therefore, giving the Blu camp a much deserved look at Goodfellas in their chosen high-def denomination. Presented in a highly satisfying 1080p / VC-1 encoded transfer, Goodfellas looks near pristine for source material almost twenty years old. Framed at 1.85:1, the image is faithful to its original film look yet manages to harness the marked improvements the high-definition format can deliver. Details leap from the on-screen composition, giving an even greater sense of viewer involvement. We can detect every element of the setting as we peer into the sweet-but-seedy underworld. Textures abound, from actors' faces to costumes to set elements, adding to the sensory immersion without any signs of artificially trumped-up enhancement. Color saturation is excellent and natural, with plenty of red tones, of course. There is a bit of graininess yet that looks to be inherent to Scorsese's original intent and not a source of incompetence on the part of the disc's mastering. The source print is near perfect and, again, it looks as if it could have been produced yesterday. As for the audio, this disc sports the same Dolby Digital 5.1 mix found on its HD-DVD counterpart. The sound is generally front-anchored, but the surround channels spring to life with many of the film's vintage song cues. The low end is summoned appropriately for the explosive situations, as well as to provide kick to gunshots and body blows. While it's not the sort of bombast that accompanies most action pictures today, this mix is well suited to the film and maintains the clarity of the all-important dialog without fail.
With so much time having elapsed since the film's original DVD bow, high-def adopters were eager to see how the Warner Brothers would represent the extras that had gone before. Thankfully, you'll find the full complement of features on this expanded-capacity BD-50 disc as had been released in Standard Definition prior. Therefore, you'll find the pair of audio commentaries, one with Scorsese and another with the real-life Henry Hill and FBI agent Edward McDonald (a truly fascinating listen, by the way). After these, you'll find the previously released featurettes, Getting Made, Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy, and The Workaday Gangster. Next are the storyboard-to-film comparisons in Paper is Cheaper Than Film, and the original theatrical trailer. With all extras present and accounted for, this Blu-ray release is commended for its completeness on top of its technical improvements.
As engaging and enchanting as the world of Goodfellas can be, it's important to remember this is a depiction of gross lawlessness and murder. Some might worry that the film irresponsibly romanticizes the mob life, but, shrewdly, Scorsese avoids this. Even though we are taken under Hill's wing to witness what he lived, the film never preaches for or against the goings-on. Instead, the picture maintains an effective objectiveness that allows us to see the allure of the gang lifestyle and all its many perks just as it unflinchingly reveals the high price that is ultimately paid for a life at the top. In this way, viewers are allowed to depart and determine for themselves what's right and wrong, what's justified and what's not. Again, Scorsese scores big with this meticulously woven endeavor.
There is so much that's right with Goodfellas that it emerges as one of Scorsese's best works, deserving of another look in light of the acknowledgements given The Departed. On Blu-ray, the facts that the mastering is upper-tier and the included bonuses make for a complete package means an investment in this high-definition treatment is definitely in order.
This court assures no tampering or coercion is behind the verdict of 'not guilty.'
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cast and Crew audio commentary
* Cop and Crook audio commentary
* Featurette: Getting Made
* Featurette: Made Men: The Goodfellas Legacy
* Featurette: The Workaday Gangster
* Storyboard-to-film comparisons
* Theatrical trailer