On hearing the somewhat depressing news that a sequel to Midnight Run is planned, I browsed Robert de Niro’s IMDB page, only to be struck by an even more depressing realization… When was the last truly great de Niro performance?
Sure, he’s done things of note in the 2000’s, namely directing the CIA drama The Good Shepherd and camping it up as a cross-dressing pirate in Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (that might be a contentious one), but when was the last time he really blew us away through the sheer strength of his performance? Since the year 2000, his back catalogue is littered with junk such as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Godsend, Hide and Seek and more. It seems as if you have to all the way back to the likes of Ronin in 1998 to discover anything substantial.
But what are de Niro’s greatest screen performances?
1) Raging Bull (1980)
Only a special kind of actor could find the humanity in a character who invites contempt and disgust but that’s what De Niro was able to do in Raging Bull. Martin Scorsese’s tough biopic of middleweight boxer Jake La Motta pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the title character’s repulsive demeanour, and it’s a challenge that would have scared off many a lesser performer. There’s little that’s outwardly appealing in the La Motta character but De Niro is a remarkably compassionate actor, and nowhere is this more evident than when Jake pounds his fists repeatedly against a prison wall, his violent self-loathing spilling out in one fell swoop.
But De Niro is also able to dig beneath the character’s revolting behaviour, vividly depicting an insecure man whose personal and sexual anxieties mean he treats his long-suffering wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) as an opponent inside the invisible ring that encircles his life. But what’s often overlooked is the humour in De Niro’s performance: the scene in which he asks brother Joey (Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face is a wonderful depiction of competitive sibling rivalry.
2) The King of Comedy (1983)
It takes skill to find nuance in a character that could so easily fall into caricature, but De Niro is the man for the job. In Scorsese’s underrated black comedy, De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe stand up comic so desperate for fame, he kidnaps Jerry Lewis in order to achieve his ends. In De Niro’s shrewd hands, Pupkin is a remarkably contradictory figure, at once repulsive and pathetic, laughable and creepy – but always human. Both director and star are able to expose that fragile desire for success that drives all of us, and in a partnership marked with more psychos and criminals than most, Pupkin is the most frighteningly believable character of all. There’s still time for humour though – the cue cards scene is hilarious.
3) Taxi Driver (1976)
Ask people what they think of Taxi Driver and the phrase ‘You talkin’ to me?’ will inevitably come to mind. But De Niro’s portrayal of an alienated soul adrift in the sleazy world of 70’s New York is peppered with as much dark humour as horror. Scorsese’s noir-inflected masterwork charts Travis Bickle in three distinct stages: at first, he attempts to integrate himself in a world he doesn’t understand (a date with Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy); then he tries to change it (attempting to save Jodie Foster’s young hooker); and finally he tries to destroy it. Once again, De Niro completely disappears inside his character, exposing Travis’ frailties for darkly comic laughs before shaking us to the core in his portrayal of a lonely man driven to extremes by the filth he sees.
4) Midnight Run (1988)
Midnight Run is, quite simply, the greatest mainstream comedy De Niro has appeared in, knocking spots off Meet the Parents and crammed with enough quotable zingers for 10 films combined. Far from playing up to his tough guy image, De Niro instead plays the material straight, thus amplifying the laughs when his character is frustrated and bamboozled at every turn. His bounty hunter Jack Walsh is charged with bringing back accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) on a midnight run – what could go wrong? Everything it turns out but the film is near as dammit a perfect buddy comedy, benefiting from sparkling chemistry between De Niro and Grodin that makes the news of a sequel positively ominous.
5) Mean Streets (1973)
De Niro’s first collaboration with Scorsese crackles with live-wire energy. His Johnny Boy isn’t in fact the main character in Mean Streets; that duty falls to Harvey Keitel. But De Niro supplies most, if not all, of the film’s energy. Taken at face value, Johnny is little more than an ordinary Italian-American teenager (albeit one who is prone to bombing mail-boxes and firing guns from roof-tops), a person devoid of ostentatious characteristics who nevertheless flourishes under Scorsese’s pacy, vibrant direction. Johnny is one of the most engaging, plausible characters in De Niro’s canon, a kinetic mixture of compassion and violent hostility, whose ultimate fate shocks even to this day.
6) The Godfather Part II (1974)
In The Godfather Part II, De Niro does a remarkably good job of putting his own spin on an iconic character made famous by the legendary Marlon Brando. The second part of Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark gangster trilogy is told partly in flashback, exploring Vito Corleone’s younger days after he arrives in New York as a child. De Niro sows the seeds of the character initially made famous by Brando, showing us a cautious, impassive Corleone in the process of ascending the mobster tree; an improvised towel silencer catching fire after a hit is a highlight. It’s a performance largely composed of silent glances, and shows what a great chameleon De Niro can be when he’s not expected to make demonstrative gestures.
7) Heat (1995)
Director Michael Mann’s epic crime thriller affords De Niro the luxury of a three-hour screen time, meaning that his role as career criminal Neil McCauley is one of his most nuanced and fascinating. A man so devoted to his lifestyle that he shuns all baggage (including furniture in his spartan apartment), McCauley then falls for Amy Brenneman’s Eady, and his life begins to unravel. Flourishing under Mann’s typically incisive direction, De Niro ensures that McCauley is not a Terminator figure but a simple guy with his own moral code – albeit one that favours the wrong side of the law. The famous coffee table scene between De Niro and Al Pacino has gone down in history but the performance is spiced by remarkable gestures throughout (the fatal decision he makes while driving through the tunnel at the end of the movie is a masterclass in subtle facial acting).
8) Goodfellas (1990)
Joe Pesci stole the show (and the Oscar) in Scorsese’s crime masterpiece about small time hoods at the bottom of the mob ladder. But De Niro’s presence is an eerie mainstay throughout all the violence and mayhem. His Jimmy Conway is a surrogate father figure to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, a quietly intimidating presence plotting violent murder at the same time as he’s offering hugs and platitudes. De Niro’s omnipotent aura is a potent reminder that the gangster lifestyle, for all its flash and pizzazz, thrives on destruction. One of De Niro’s quietest roles, he’s equally as scary as Pesci – he just goes about his business in a more understated fashion. Witness the menace in the unobtrusive restaurant scene towards the end of the movie – De Niro is planning to have Liotta whacked but never spells it out. Chilling.
9) Casino (1995)
Casino unfairly but inevitably drew comparison with Goodfellas on its release but it is in fact a movie that casts its net wider, venturing beyond small-time gangsters and instead focusing its gaze on wide-scale corruption throughout the Las Vegas casino system. Likewise, De Niro’s character Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein is possessed of more power and authority than in the earlier film – which makes the eventual fall from grace all the more catastrophic. Refreshingly, the balance of power is also tipped in this movie, with De Niro palpably intimidated by Joe Pesci’s splenetic mobster, a childhood friend who’s moved to Vegas to build an empire of his own. The relentless emphasis on voiceover becomes wearying but De Niro convinces as a man brought down by his own hubris.
10) This Boy’s Life (1993)
De Niro has always specialised in larger than life characters but he’s also brilliant at playing pathetic figures crippled by their own neuroses. Michael Caton Jones’ terrific, underrated drama is a case in point. Based on Tobias Wolff’s memoirs, De Niro stars as the abusive stepfather of Leonardo DiCaprio’s rebellious teenager, a repulsive bully who takes particular delight in tormenting his stepson for all manner of so-called wrong-doings. The reason De Niro is so chilling in this instance is that his villainy is rooted very much in the worst human foibles; he’s no gangster with an agenda to burn but an intensely jealous, lonely individual, and all the more believable for it. The final kitchen showdown between the two actors is electrifying.