These Goodfellas are Badfellas
There have been many good gangster movies over the years but for me there are but a hand full which go that extra step to become great. Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" is one of those hand full which has that extra something about it which makes it not only a great gangster movie but also a great movie. From the storyline, the action, drama, cast and performances, not forgetting the stunning soundtrack and camera work, everything about "Goodfellas" works. It not only works but leaves you with memories which never leave you, be it the violence, a snippet of dialogue or an impressive piece of camera work. This is why "Goodfellas" is such a great gangster movie it draws you into the story, entertains with the performances and drama and then stays with you long after the movie ends.
As a teenager Henry Hill (Ray Liotta - Field of Dreams) idolized the gangsters he watched in his neighbourhood and it was only a matter of time before he became one of them. Joining forces with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro - Midnight Run) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci - Lethal Weapon 2), Henry works his way up the ranks as they pull of various impressive robberies. But following the robbery to beat all robberies the glamorous life that Hill and his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco - Riding in Cars with Boys) lead starts to tarnish as he gets into drug dealing and Jimmy and Tommy become more and more dangerous as they have their sights set on greatness within the 'family'.
"Goodfellas" is an epic movie spanning 3 decades as it covers the life of former American gangster Henry Hill adapting the story from Nicholas Pileggi's book "Wiseguy". In many ways "Goodfellas" is a movie of chapters as it covers the various parts of Hill's life starting with him as a teenager who idolised the mobsters that hung out on the street corners of his neighbourhood. It's a wonderful opening building up this glamorized view of being a gangster as Henry watches them go about their business doing what they like with no cares in the world. And then getting drawn into the life as he worked at the Cab Stand run by one of the gangsters, learning how to score and make money here and there as he did more and more work for them.
The next chapter of "Goodfellas" covers Hill as a young man, now a small time gangster working his way up in the organization and this is really the main focus of the movie. Again you get the glamorized view of the life of a gangster but at the same time you get a look at the brutal side, the murders, the destroying of businesses and basically more of gangsters doing what they like. But at the same time it brings in other story elements as we are taken into the world of the gangster. We meet Hill's wife, his girlfriend and get to know his close friends Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito. But through out this you also get a look at Hill and how he differs from his fellow gangsters, how he likes the good life but the brutal side doesn't sit so easy. We see that he has a temper but when it comes to murder it doesn't sit as easy with him as it does with Jimmy and Tommy.
Then what is for the most the final chapter, the third part of "Goodfellas" we watch Hill and his compatriot's pull of the robbery of all robberies but then at the same time his decline into becoming a drug dealer. It paints a picture that whilst Hill loved the riches that being a gangster afforded him he wasn't in the same mould as his gangster friends and that was part of his down fall. This final chapter manages to show that life as a gangster wasn't just glamour it was dangerous and not just from your enemies but also from those you trust.
But the storyline is only part of the reason why "Goodfellas" is a great movie and I have barely touched on it because it is so intricate with countless sub plots and examination of relationships whilst also giving us a look at the lives of wise guys. A big part of why "Goodfellas" is such a great movie is what director Martin Scorsese brings to it. Firstly you notice an amazing energy and it bristles along at such a terrific pace allowing it to bring so much into the movie without it feeling overlong. In fact at 146 minutes it feels like you have watched enough to fill at least two movies but it never feels rushed, storylines develop perfectly without them ending up being skimmed over.
On top of this brilliant pacing you have to say that Scorsese's eye for a shot is stunning. There are countless scenes which are magnificent because of either the camera angle or editing. But the most special of these scenes is the long tracking shot as Henry and Karen enter the Copacabana taking us from their car, through the kitchens, the restaurant to being seated and finally to the performance on stage. There is no other word for this scene other than magnificent, not just because it was a single tracking shot through tight corridors or because dialogue is spoken through out but because it signifies Karen being sold on the life style of a gangster.
Plus of course Scorsese fills "Goodfellas" with a brilliant soundtrack which helps take the story through the decades giving us swing through to rock. The most magnificent of these is the "Layla" montage which is so powerful it is breath taking.
All of which makes "Goodfellas" a stunning movie but being about gangsters it is also a violent one and also one riddled with expletives. It is brutal but not in an uneasy sense of the word and again Scorsese makes these scenes of violence amazing to watch and in some cases a little shocking. But even the non violent scenes are terrific; the comical argument which ensues after Henry calls Tommy a funny guy is so captivating getting you on the edge of your seat as you don't know whether Tommy will go for Henry or whether it is an act.
And then there is the final layer the performances and not a single actor puts a foot wrong. You have Robert De Niro who is so at home playing a gangster as is Joe Pesci who is brilliantly volatile as Tommy and controlling them is Paul Sorvino as Paul Cicero laid back but with an inner power. But "Goodfellas" is all about Ray Liotta as Henry Hill and Lorraine Braco as his wife Karen. Liotta undoubtedly gives his finest performance to date as Henry because it is he who takes us on the journey. And in doing so he creates this 3 dimensional character one who enjoys the glamour of being a gangster, the sharp suits and the free will but at the same time allowing us to see that he is slightly different, that he doesn't have that killer instinct which separates him from the others. And accompanying him is Braco as Karen who helps show what life was like for the Hill's from her perspective. It s a brilliant performance, equal to all of those from the men and makes "Goodfellas" a rounded movie which shows all the sides of the life of a gangster.
What this all boils down to is that "Goodfellas" is a great gangster movie, a great movie and one of those rare movies which is a hair's breadth away from being 100% perfect. From the storyline which covers the life of Henry, the action and drama which punctuates the story, the soundtrack and camera angles plus the direction and performances there is nothing to fault. And for a movie which comes in at nearly 2 and half hours packs a lot more in than you expect without feeling either rushed or padded out. But it is the fact that it is such a memorable movie for all the right reasons that it entertains from start to finish makes it such a great gangster movie.