Seventeen years after revising the book on gangster movies in his breakthrough Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese returned to the netherworld of Italian-American organized crime with this stunningly ambitious, ferociously entertaining look at one man's rise and fall in a Mafia family. Shot and edited with a propulsive sense of rhythm that Gene Krupa would envy (this may be the fastest 150 minutes in film history), Goodfellas explores the 30-year career of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as a "mechanic" working for mob boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). While most films about gangsters attribute their characters' criminal lives to greed or sociopathic behavior, Scorsese makes it clear Henry and his friends Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) are gangsters because they enjoy it: they like to steal, they enjoy violence, and their "work" allows them to profit from these qualities, which would be a hindrance in nearly any other career. However, while the film offers a point-blank look at New York's criminal underworld from the '50s to the '80s, Scorsese also uses this story as a unusual but clear moral fable. In the first few reels, Henry and his partners follow a strict code of honor and make sure to obey Cicero's wishes: you pay tribute to the boss, you stay away from dealing drugs, and you don't kill anyone unless it's absolutely necessary. By the mid-'70s, these guidelines have been forgotten, and as Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy slip away from Paulie's corrupt but strictly ordered ethical universe, it leads only to death and betrayal. Scorsese has long been fascinated with the actions of men searching for a moral compass in a faithless land, but he's rarely told the story with such kinetic force and audacious skill.
by Mark Deming review