Martin Scorsese decided to make Goodfellas after watching a few videos on MTV. His response was something like "You think THAT'S fast? I'll show you FAST!" And the rest is history. With this film, Scorsese flipped the very concept of film making on its head and made a film faster and more full throttle than any that had come before it.
Does this mean we can blame Scorsese for the quick-cut, shaky-cam nonsense that has become modern action films? No, because this film is actually coherent and intelligible. People will always find ways to make awful films, but Martin Scorsese already laid out the blueprint for making a movie that was incredibly fast paced WITHOUT boring, or nauseating, the audience.
The film follows real life gangster Henry Hill and is essentially something of a biopic. You won't believe that watching the film because so many scenes are weird, bizarre and shocking enough that they feel as if they couldn't have been anything but the invention of a screenwriter, but... Gangsters are imaginative people, and they've found more ways to eradicate their enemies in real life than any screenwriter could ever come up with.
That's not to say that the film is, through and through, one hundred percent factual, but it's certainly rooted in reality. In fact, the characters portrayed were often more brutal and violent than depicted in the film. For example, Robert DeNiro's Jimmy Conway is portrayed as a mostly sensible mobster, a man who is capable of violence, but who will not be so quick to resort to it as his cohorts. Jimmy Burke, the model for Conway, on the other hand, would visit people who owed him money and lock their children in the refrigerator just to scare them.
Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito is a whole other story. In the film, he has a hair trigger temper and murders several people over relatively minor insults. In real life, Tommy DeSimone didn't need minor insults. At one point in their youth, he and Henry Hill were walking down the street and, seeing a man neither of them had ever met before, DeSimone said "Henry, watch this!" and pulled out a pistol and shot the man in the head, killing him instantly. Hill reportedly said "Tommy that was cold", to which Tommy replied "Well I'm a cold cat!"
So in a sense, the film almost sugarcoats it for us.
The pace of the film is not just a stylistic device, but rather, something that puts us in Hill's state of mind as his cocaine addiction spirals out of control. The more drugs he puts in his body, the faster the film gets, until finally we're brought crashing down into the sad, sober state of his reality as his friends betray him and he's forced to turn to the witness protection program.
The film makes an excellent companion piece to tother gangster films. Both are based on real life mob stories, and in both, we see DeNiro playing the wiser, less volatile gangster to Pesci's loose-cannon sociopath. On just about every level, Goodfellas is on even ground with The Godfather Part II. If a bit lacking in pathos, the film makes up for it in sheer energy and wild style.
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