There’s almost no part of Goodfellas that hasn’t been analyzed to death since 1990. There’s Liotta’s hilariously self-satisfied narration, which offers no apology or remorse as the bodies pile up. There’s the kinetic, disconnected approach to plotting, zipping between vaguely related scenes with an intensity that belies its 140-minute running time. Contrast that with The Godfather films, which were intricately plotted and ended in epic crescendos of violence. Instead, Goodfellas simply follows Henry and his pals Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) as they hang out, occasionally rip off truck and airplane shipments, and attack people, either for business or nothing at all.
Pesci, who won an Oscar for his role, is Goodfellas’s most memorable actor—so much so that nearly every line he speaks has passed into total cliché. But it’s remarkable how all of the film’s dramatic tension is centered around his character Tommy, who can snap at a moment’s notice. Though there are larger stories told in Goodfellas (the most notable being the famed Lufthansa heist), they don’t really matter to Henry’s life and safety. Even when he goes to jail for four years, he eats like a king (who can forget the clove of garlic sliced with a razor blade), and he ends up arrested not because of the millions earned in the Lufthansa heist, but for a cocaine-dealing business he ran on the side.
It’s all so gloriously pointless, and yet Scorsese makes the mobster’s life feel like that of a god among men. Liotta has probably never been better—wormy (his braying laughter at Tommy’s bad jokes is wonderfully hideous) and yet somehow sympathetic. Perhaps because he’s placed alongside two truly cold-blooded men, Henry is the closest thing the audience gets to an anti-hero in the film: His mild shock at every pointless murder feels like moral outrage in the mobster world. That’s a dynamic David Chase understood when laying out the world of his TV show The Sopranos (the only true Mafia masterpiece produced since Goodfellas): By making his protagonist Tony a slightly more reasonable person than his violent, thick-headed associates, the character seemed infinitely more relatable.
Scorsese has since come back time and again to the world of crime. The Departed, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (Goodfellas was nominated but lost to Dances With Wolves), has the same energetic storytelling style but applies it to a more intricate plot of triple agents and informants. The Wolf of Wall Street comes closest to Goodfellas’s fascinatingly blurry territory of depiction vs. endorsement, and stirred up debate in 2013 for making the life of a homophobic, misogynistic, and heartless white-color criminal look like a luxurious commercial. Goodfellas has the same dark heart, understanding that even as the audience watches on with horror, there’s some tiny part of them that has completely surrendered to the madness and the fun. That was Goodfellas’s original genius and, even in retrospect, it seems impossible to equal.