Try as I may, I just cannot get into mob movies. I understand and appreciate that films about organized crime rank as some of the most acclaimed in cinema -- 'The Godfather' trilogy, 'Casino,' 'Donnie Brasco' and of course 'GoodFellas' all come to mind -- but I just can't fully separate the subject matter from the artistry behind it. Mob movies are the equivalent of boxing to me -- why would I want to watch a bunch of stupid people beating the shit out of each other, under the guise of perverted codes of "honor," "loyalty," and "family?"
So it is a high compliment indeed for me to say that, despite my abhorrence of the mob genre, 'GoodFellas' is a film I can not only watch but greatly admire. Though I'd probably rank 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' a bit higher on my list of Martin Scorsese's all-time best works (and boy is it ever tough to judge such a formidable oeuvre), 'GoodFellas' is certainly one of the director's finest -- a fiery, passionate, vivid depiction of organized crime both unflinching in its realism and epic in its telling.
Based on the true story of Henry Hill, who lived "the life" since childhood, only to turn informant in one of the biggest mob stings in government history, 'GoodFellas' traces the lives of three pivotal figures in the 1960s and '70s organized crime scene in New York. Ray Liotta plays Hill, a local boy turned gangster in a neighborhood full of the roughest and the toughest. The second point of the triangle is Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a born gangster as lethal as he is loyal, and who will eventually become Henry's best friend and confidant. Third is Hill's de facto mentor, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), who stages some of biggest hijacks and heists the mob has ever seen. Hill will eventually scale the heights of organized crime and attain the life of luxury and respect he always dreamed of. But his American Dream must inevitably come to a bloody end, with Hill eventually turning traitor in an effort to both save his family and find redemption.
What elevates 'GoodFellas' to the level of a humane, innately moral picture is that Scorsese straddles the very difficult line between depicting the allure and vanity of the mob lifestyle without worshipping it. Certainly, the opening passages of 'GoodFellas' make the mob look glamorous -- after all, we are watching the story through the young Hill's eyes. But as his world and life spiral downward into an excess of money, drugs and violence, Scorsese deconstructs not just Hill's idealization of the life he always wanted but also our culture's own repulsion/attraction towards the mob's perverted moral code. One need only compare 'GoodFellas' to a crass exercise like Brian De Palma's 'Scarface,' which traffics in over-the-top sadism and excess for merely camp effect, to see that Scorsese is not so much staging just another mob movie in 'GoodFellas' so much as a mythic meditation on the American Dream gone awry.
'GoodFellas' would also be a terrific film if only because of its performances. Liotta, De Niro and Pesce (who took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts) deliver career-best portrayals, as do Lorraine Bracco as Hill's long-suffering wife, and Paul Sorvino as Paul Cicero, who Hill must eventually betray on his way up (and down) the mob hierarchy.
'GoodFellas' in some ways brings Scorsese full circle to his '70s roots, and films as disparate as 'Mean Streets,' 'Taxi Driver' and 'New York, New York.' The city (as a state of mind, not a geographical location) infuses every frame of every one of Scorsese's films, but 'GoodFellas' feels like a completion, weaving together all of the themes he has explored in his past work (loyalty, honor, family, crime, redemption, Catholicism -- it's all here) in a way that's both epic in scope yet incredibly personal and intimate. Which makes it impossible not to see Scorsese's own reflection in the young Hill. Even if they took very different paths in life, they ultimately came to the same conclusion.
My first and only experience seeing 'GoodFellas' was on DVD way back in the late '90s, when Warner Home Video first released the film as an antiquated "flipper" disc. The transfer was quite poor, marred by heavy grain, an overly dark appearance and muddy colors. Granted, it was probably better than crappy VHS tape, but it was far from a shining example of the DVD format.
So I wasn't sure if I should expect much from HD DVD. It certainly seemed, on the surface, to be a strange choice to show off the new high-def next-gen format. But boy, is this new disc a near-revelation. Though the master utilized here is the same as that used for the 2003 standard DVD re-issue of the film, this is an incredibly impressive visual presentation, and I doubt the film has ever looked better.
Encoded in 1080p and framed at 1.78:1 widescreen (slightly opened up from the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film's theatrical presentation), I was really surprised at how wonderfully film-like 'GoodFellas' looks. The image is incredibly stable, with little film grain even in the darkest scenes, and wonderfully smooth colors and fleshtones. Scorsese sometimes employs a slight filter effect, which gives some scenes a slightly reddish tinge, but it appears natural and clean throughout.
I was also impressed with the sense of depth and clarity to the transfer -- 'GoodFellas' looks like a new movie throughout, not over fifteen years old. Detail is top-notch, with subtle skin and fabric textures apparent, and a real sense of three-dimensionality to the picture. Blacks are rich and deep, with contrast excellent. I never would have guessed as much, but 'GoodFellas' may be one of Warner's finest HD DVD efforts yet.
Presented in English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround (French-Quebec and Spanish Dolby 2.0 Surround dubs are also included), 'GoodFellas' soundtrack doesn't gain much in the transition to HD DVD. Though a strong presentation appropriate to the material, there is just not enough going on sonically to really offer much of a noticeable improvement over standard Dolby Digital.
Directly comparing three scenes between the HD DVD and the previous standard DVD special edition (one loud scene, two quiet ones) any upgrades are minor. I liked Scorsese's sometimes aggressive use of surrounds in some scenes (and effective use of period songs on the soundtrack, largely in the club scenes), which are a bit more pronounced on the Dolby Digital-Plus track. Bass is also considerably deeper on the loud sounds, such as the scene when Hill firebombs a group of cars early on in the film. Dynamic range is also slightly fuller, with a more natural sounding midrange.
Still, it is just not a gigantic jump. But purely in terms of how the soundtrack serves the material, 'GoodFellas' sounds great, so taken on its own terms, it is hard to be disappointed.
Including all of the supplements on Warner's previous two-disc standard DVD special edition of 'GoodFellas,' there's nothing new here for fans, but this is still a pretty strong batch of extras, even if the video supplements are a bit weaker than I had hoped.
First up are two of the better commentaries I've heard recently. Track one consists of no less than Scorsese, cast members Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino and Frank Vincent, screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Of course, they all weren't recorded together (what a pile-up that would have been), but the choice editing of all their comments is well thought-out, even if the sheer number of participants means no one really gets to speak for more than ten or fifteen minutes. But what great stuff! Just about every aspect of the production is covered, and like all great commentary tracks, this one tells its own story. No joke -- it is often as gripping as the film, despite the occasional dull spot (and the fact that I tend to be more interested in the actors than the technical side of things). A must-listen nevertheless.
Equally as fascinating is the second commentary, dubbed "The Crook and The Cop." Henry Hill and FBI agent Edward McDonald -- the man who put him in witness protection -- talk almost non-stop. However much I may despise what the guy did and stood for (and, quite frankly, in some ways still does) Hill is incredibly engaging, even hilarious. If nothing else, he's a great salesman for his own life, comparing every last detail of the movie to the real story. He also overshadows McDonald, who pretty much acts as interviewer. But that's okay -- it is Hill's show, and we're only living in it.
Unfortunately, after the great commentaries, the somewhat pithy video-based featurettes pale in comparison. The 29-minute "Getting Made" feels redundant with the cast commentary, featuring new interviews with Liotta and Bracco, but old EPK snippets from Scorsese, De Niro and Pesce. This is not a bad "digest version" of the commentary, but a film this visually rich and culturally significant deserves quite a bit more than this.
Also included is the 8-minute "Workaday Gangster," which features a new interview with Hill on life as a mobster, but again there is really nothing here that isn't in the commentary. The 13-minute "GoodFellas Legacy" is pretty self-congratulatory, featuring new interviews with such current filmmakers as Richard Linklater, Jon Favreau and Antoine Fuqua praising the film. Unfortunately, no one really delves that deep into the movie beyond the technical and Scorsese's obvious command of the cinema language, so it doesn't illuminate much.
Rounding out the extras is the "Paper is Cheaper Than Film" storyboard-to-film comparison, which features Scorsese's pencil-drawings of many key scenes in the film. I'm not a real big fan of this stuff, but you film students should love it. Warner has also included the film's original theatrical trailer in 1.78:1 widescreen and encoded at 1080p (the rest of the video-based supplements are all 480i only).
The biggest compliment I can pay 'GoodFellas' is that I hate mob movies but can do nothing but praise this film. This is one of Scorsese's career achievements, a perfectly realized American tragedy of grand ambition and scope that hits every mark just right. This HD-DVD also boasts pretty terrific video, a solid soundtrack, and two great commentaries. I don't know if the video quality alone makes it worth an upgrade over the previous standard DVD special edition, but it is great to have the whole package on one disc and looking better than it ever has before. And definitely, if you don't already own 'GoodFellas' on disc, this is a no-brainer.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.