Revisiting the highs (and low) of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino's big-screen collaborations
With 'The Irishman' now on Netflix, we looked back at the legendary actors' previous films together.
Any list of the greatest screen actors ever starts with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The résumés for the two legends span 50 years and feature countless awards, classic films, and iconic performances. But when it comes to collaborations between the longtime friends, that number is much smaller. Forty-five years after they costarred in The Godfather Part II, De Niro and Pacino have reunited for another gangster masterpiece with their fourth big-screen collaboration, The Irishman.
While this is the first time that De Niro, Pacino, Joe Pesci, and director Martin Scorsese have all worked together, The Irishman feels like the film they’ve been buildings toward for decades. Scorsese’s extensive — and expensive — use of de-aging technology got much of the early press, but that’s just the gateway to tell a story of man and mortality. The Irishman also serves as a vehicle for De Niro and Pacino’s truest partnership yet, considering their total shared screen time and the importance of the relationship between Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).
With The Irishman now streaming on Netflix and serving as a culmination of sorts for the men involved, we decided to look back at the highs — and one low — of De Niro and Pacino’s collaborations.
HIGH: The Godfather Part II
What a way to start. Young actors De Niro and Pacino never appear together in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful sequel, which some believe managed to top its predecessor, but their connection is made even more powerful by that fact. With Coppola wanting to make both a sequel and prequel, he cast De Niro as young Vito Corleone, whom we track from his escape of Sicily to his rise in New York. Meanwhile, his son Michael (Pacino) is dealing with his own rise, having officially succeeded his father as head of the Corleone crime family. Both performances are notably quiet, except for when Pacino occasionally unleashes the manic madness he would become known for. Following in the footsteps of Marlon Brando in this role is about as pressure-filled as it gets, but De Niro perfectly captured Vito on his way to an Oscar win, while Pacino landed his second nomination for playing Michael. But the accolades are nothing compared to the legacy of the film, which many consider among the greatest of all time.
In the 21 years between Godfather Part II and Heat, De Niro and Pacino would solidify their places in cinema history, becoming arguably the two best working actors in Hollywood. And that’s why the anticipation was so high for writer-director Michael Mann’s crime thriller, which would finally find the two icons sharing the screen. The L.A.-set heist film centers on a game of cat-and-mouse between expert thief Neil McCauley (De Niro) and dogged detective Vincent Hanna (Pacino), but they wouldn’t come face-to-face until 90 minutes in, when Hanna pulls over McCauley and asks to buy him a cup of coffee. What ensues is a simple six-minute sequence of two men drinking coffee at a diner, exchanging philosophies and dreams, and yet it’s like a heavyweight fight filled with mutual respect, resulting in a scene that will forever be on film’s Mount Rushmore.
LOW: Righteous Kill
After waiting 21 years to reunite for Heat, De Niro and Pacino only waited 13 years to do it again. And the expectations and excitement were high for Righteous Kill, with the cop drama being the first film to feature De Niro and Pacino prominently together. But instead of another classic like Godfather Part II or Heat, we got an all-time letdown. Where to even begin? How about 50 Cent being the third lead, or Pacino’s Rooster saying the 1960s cartoon Underdog “spawned a generation of junkies,” or a De Niro rant about loving the infield fly rule, or Turk (De Niro) being Rooster’s role model despite Pacino being three years older than De Niro, or maybe the most-mailed in performance of De Niro’s illustrious career, or the laughable reveal of the “twist”? Righteous Kill is a career low for all involved, which is saying something since Pacino would make Jack and Jill a few years later.
HIGH: The Irishman
We won’t get into spoilers for The Irishman, since many of you will be diving into it over the holiday, surely with many restroom and snack breaks scattered throughout the 210-minute running time. But just know that both De Niro and Pacino turn in their best performances of the 21st century (yes, I know that bar isn’t ridiculously high), and, as good as the dynamic continues to be between Pesci and De Niro, the Sheeran and Hoffa relationship is the emotional heart of the movie, making their final interaction all that more heartbreaking. And if this is the last time that we see these actors together, doing what they do best, it’s the fitting end of an era.
The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix.