So, here’s a dilemma: how do you write about a film like Goodfellas? It’s 27 years old and has been written about so extensively that it’s hard to find an original word to say about it. We all know it’s one of Scorsese’s best. We all know about the technical wizardry that resulted in two legendary long shots – first, introducing us to the wiseguys that control New York City and second, taking us through the backdoor, kitchen and finally the front row of the Copacabana.
Then, there’s the performances. Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, a crackling, exciting performance that feels like the perfect depiction of soaring highs and crushing lows of the underworld.
There’s Joe Pesci’s terrifying portrayal of Tommy DeVito who, behind the smiles and the wisecracks, is only ever seconds away from violence - violence that looms large throughout the film before suddenly exploding in brutal, rapidly cut scenes.
Holding it together is Robert De Niro, securing his position at the top of the crime genre. His performance as Jimmy Conway is matched by only a few (including De Niro’s role in Heat). In the context of gangster films, it’s as cited, admired and parodied as Brando’s Don Corleone.
The fact is that Goodfellas has become synonymous with crime cinema. While Scorsese saw the opportunity to insert references to some of his own favourites (see Pesci firing his gun into the audience a la 1903’s The Great Train Robbery), pop culture has embraced many of the scenes here.
Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll more than likely know the ‘How am I funny?’ scene between Pesci and Liotta. The line ‘as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster’ will be recognisable to both those re-watching a classic and those seeing it for the first time.
Goodfellas still holds up 27 years on. Scenes still surprise you on repeat viewings, the performances are still near note perfect and modern viewings reveal just how much is owed to this picture. You can’t go five minutes without seeing a future Sopranos cast member, including Lorraine Bracco, who gives a brilliant performance as Henry’s mistreated, yet oh-so-culpable wife, and you get a real sense that you’re watching everyone at the very top of their game.
So forgive us if this is less a review and more of an outpouring of reasons as to why you should, as soon as you can, go and watch Goodfellas.
It’s not just a modern American gangster classic, it’s one of the best films of the 90s.