Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci
Tag line: "In a world that's powered by violence, on the streets where the violent have power, a new generation carries on an old tradition"
Trivia: Ray Liotta turned down the part of Harvey Dent in Batman in order to make this film
The debate rages on as to which is the better gangster film: Francis Ford Coppola’s award-winning masterpiece, The Godfather, or Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s epic look at the New York crime scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Personally, I find it all a bit silly. I mean, who'd want to live in a world where we didn't have both?
Based on the novel Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he rises through the ranks of New York’s criminal underworld. Life was good for Henry in the early days. He was friends with some of the era’s most notorious mobsters, including Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro), a smooth-talking thief who engineered the largest airport heist in U.S. history; Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a volatile wiseguy with a sharp sense of humor; and Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the head of the family to which Henry belonged. Not even his marriage to the beautiful Karen (Lorraine Bracco) could slow Henry down. But the law soon caught up with him, and after doing a stint in prison, Henry took up drug trafficking. By the late ‘70s, he was himself a full-fledged drug addict, and as a result, his friends turned their backs on him. Fearful that Jimmy was going to have him killed, Henry struck a deal with the U.S. Government, testifying against his old associates and putting them behind bars for a very long time.
Thanks to Scorsese’s always-engaging style, we become more than simple observers of this wild world of organized crime; we’re active participants as well, swept up by the excitement of it all. Right from the start, when a teenage Henry (Christopher Serrone) goes to work as an errand boy for Paulie and his brother, Tuddy (Frank DiLeo), we feel the exhilaration of living life in the fast lane, a sensation that continues through much of the picture. What’s more, the cast of Goodfellas is excellent. Liotta, DeNiro, Bracco, and Sorvino deliver superb performances, but the real stand-out is Joe Pesci, whose Tommy DeVito is as funny as he is violent, a rabid dog with a bite that’s as bad as his bark.
So, which is better: The Godfather or Goodfellas? Both are great movies in their own right, but stylistically speaking, they couldn’t be more different. True, both films deal with organized crime, creating a world where theft, extortion, and murder are simply business as usual. Yet when it comes to telling their stories, each movie takes an entirely different approach. If I were to look outside of the cinema, to other realms of entertainment, to describe the style of each film, I would say The Godfather is comparable to a 19th century opera, while Goodfellas, with its graphic depiction of violence and overall brutal approach, would be more along the lines of a heavyweight boxing match. Sure, there’s violence, both sudden and harsh, in The Godfather, but there are also honorable characters; the wise Don, the loyal and loving son, men who rise above the bloodshed to achieve a level of respectability. With Goodfellas, we enjoy spending time with its characters, and even laugh with them on occasion, yet never once do we see them as anything more than mafia thugs.
If I were condemned to a desert island, and could take only one film with me, I’d pick The Godfather, simply because it's my all-time favorite movie. That said, I’m sure there would be nights when I’d be sitting on the beach of that island prison of mine, gazing out at the sea, and longing for a chance to see Goodfellas just one more time.