Retro Review: Goodfellas (1990)

The text below the break is part of a DVD review originally published on April 15th, 2000.

Here are some updated thoughts:  I never went to Goodfellas in the theater.  Not really my style of movie, or at least not one I would pay full theatrical price to see.  Too bad, because it’s a fantastic movie not for the faint of heart, either from the site of blood, violence, or non-stop assault of F-bombs.  None of these bother me, but trying to watch versions on cable that have been edited for television is cringe worthy.  The movie can only be appreciated in its un-edited version.

The interesting thing is, this movie could make a great adaptation with a science fiction theme . . . as strange as that may sound.[divider style=”dashed” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.
Henry Hill (Ray Liotta)

The Godfather gave us the look of what life was like for white collar mobster Michael Corleone who gave the word, or just a nod, for someone to get whacked; but it was the blue collar Goodfellas who performed the actual whacking. This film will smack you upside the head with the reality of what life is like for a gangster. It’s not just a bunch of “How you’s doin’?” and “Fagettaboudit”; it’s about the dirty, nitty-gritty, bad guy things that needed to be done in order for the “organization” to flourish. It’s about the hard parts of that life style, it’s about the real problems (and solutions) that face the average goodfella. It’s powerful, it’s in your face, it’s real and it never let’s up or disappoints.

The first words we see are “Based on a True Story,” so right away I was forced to sit up and take notice. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is just a nobody kid. He has an abusive father, an overbearing mother, and several siblings all living in a small 4-room apartment. He sees his opportunity for a better life in the “organization” and, against the will of his parents, is taken in by the headman Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), for a part time job parking cars and running errands. Henry does good work and immediately makes an impression. He’s making money, lots of money, more money than most of the adults in his neighborhood.  Life was good for the kid, and he only saw it getting better. Henry soon meets the most feared hit man in all New York, Jimmy Conway, played by the very convincing and very powerful Robert De Niro. Jimmy, did his first stint in the joint at eleven and was doing hits for mob bosses when he was sixteen. You fear this guy, and you’re convinced that De Niro is completely engrossed in the character and that he really IS a gangster. Jimmy introduces Henry to the highly volatile Tommy DeVito played by the brilliantly typecast Joe Pesci. Together Tommy and Henry work well by selling illegal cigarettes, paying off cops, anything . . . they’d do it. The setup is beautiful and the trio run it exceptionally. However, Henry is eventually “pinched” (arrested), but comes through like a true gangster; he didn’t rat out his friends. After being cleared of all charges, courtesy of Paulie bribing the judge, Jimmy teaches the kid the two most important things in life:  Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.

Henry grows in the organization and along with Tommy and Jimmy runs the show for Paulie without missing a beat. Henry begins to make a name for himself. He’s the guy with connections, money, booze, whatever. Henry is fat and happy and nothing can bring him down. Amidst all this glamour, Henry meets a lovely and passionate Jewish woman named Karen (Lorraine Bracco). Henry wines and dines Karen and she’s quickly impressed with how this 20-year-old kid has the city wired to his fingertips. So much so that she ignores the obvious signs that Henry is into something dangerous and that he himself is a dangerous man. Even after a compelling scene where Henry beats a guy half to death, who had assaulted and beaten Karen, the adventure and danger of the life turns her on. She’s lost in the dream and falls madly in love with Henry. They soon get married and start building the typical storybook family. Well, almost.

[box type=”error” align=”” class=”” width=””]GoodfellasGoodfellas is a wry, violent, and exhilerating film about the life of Henry Hill, and aspiring criminal who ends up in the FBI’s witness protection program after testifying against his former partners.  As a poor Irish-Italian growing up in 1950s New York City, Hill rises through the ranks of his neighborhood’s organized crime branch, and with the money from the mob he begins living the good life.

Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci
Genre:  Drama
Media:  Film, 145 minutes
Rating: R
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $46.8 million, U.S.
Year: September 19, 1990
4.5 out of 5 stars[/box]

As with everything too good to be true, the dream doesn’t last. One fateful night Henry’s life takes a turn for the worst. Tommy, who has always had a temper, lets it get the best of him when a head mobster of a rival organization makes fun of Tommy for his previous life as a shoe shiner. Tommy loses it and beats the guy to death. This is the beginning of the end for Henry. He gets involved with not one but TWO girlfriends and even sets one of them up in a lavish apartment across the street from his house so he doesn’t have to go far for his on-the-side action. With his second girlfriend came drugs. Paulie abhors drugs and tells Henry to give it up and make his money the “honest” way. Instead of getting out and cleaning up Henry goes in further. After a couple of stints in the joint and borrowing on every ounce of credit he could muster, Paulie officially cuts him off. From then on Henry is on his own and very paranoid, always looking over his shoulder for the organization and the Feds. With everything closing in and turning on him, even his wife, who threatens to kill him more than once, he’s forced to choose between doing right and doing right by his friends. Does he go against everything that Jimmy and Paulie ever did for him and what they taught him, or does he stick to the code of the brotherhood?

Goodfellas may not be a feel good movie, but it’s definitely one great gangster flick. Joe Pesci arguably turns in his best performance of his career. You’re literally scared of his violent tenacity and anger control issues. If you crossed him, he beat you up at best and killed you at worst. I was literally worried that he would come out off the screen and pull a gun on me. He definitely deserved the Oscar he won. Robert De Niro convinces you that he is a gangster. I’d almost argue that this performance is better in Goodfellas than in his Oscar winning performance in The Godfather: Part II. He’s the one who teaches the gangster way of life to Henry as if he knew it first hand. And last but not least, Ray Liotta is perfect in his role as Henry. His depiction of Henry Hill and his life is superb. Ray is a very underrated actor and he shows that he has the talent to be a great actor if given the chance.

Martin Scorsese delivers big time on this film. He channels all this talent and resources of the three great actors and meshes it all together with an excellent story and perfect cinematography. You’re drawn in by the spectacular storytelling, plot detail, and cavalier violence of the characters. The characters are developed expertly and both the highs and lows of human emotion are explored in this divine masterpiece. He shows you that it’s not all fun and games to be in that life. This is the real thing. He shows you the bad times that no one talks about, and the downward slide that the life inevitably takes. After all the favors have been used up, after all the money has been borrowed, and the tabs have been run up at the bars and restaurants, it all needs to be paid for in the end . . . otherwise, you’re dead.

The bottom line is this: If you don’t come out of watching Goodfellas feeling uplifted or inspired (which you won’t), you’ll definitely be hit with an ultimate hard dose of reality. If you ever wanted to know what it’s really like to be outside of the law and make all those “fun” moves for the quick cash, this is your movie. I can’t recommend Goodfellas highly enough.

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Note:   I’m revisiting and re-posting many older articles (almost 200) I’ve written (or contributed to) over the years, either for my own purposes or as contributions to other sites now long digitally decayed and dormant.  These reviews/articles will appear in their nearly raw, unaltered form, with a few updated thoughts at the beginning of each.

Words © 2016-2020, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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