Based on Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses, the film, written expertly by Steven Zaillian, finds Frank narrating the story of his rise as a henchman for mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and subsequent association with Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the fabled leader of the Teamsters. De Niro's Frank is largely a passive player, a guy who realizes he can make a good living and find a solid stature by doing others' bidding, regardless of whether that entails whacking a couple of guys. But when the Mafiosos eventually find themselves as odds with Hoffa, who they'd long backed, Frank's allegiances are grimly pulled in two directions.
It's worth noting Pacino's Hoffa doesn't show up until about 45 minutes into the action, allowing the relationship between Frank and Russell to flourish. It's a treat to see De Niro abandoning his days of playing Dirty Grandpas and doddering dad-types, as well as to witness Pesci's from a nearly 10-year break from on screen acting just as wryly intimidating as ever. There's an energy that will be familiar to anyone familiar with Scorsese's work in this arena: Frank and Russell share a volatile brotherhood based on a secret language of murder and money. But the scope of this story starts to expand when Hoffa enters the frame.
As the dialogue notes: Hoffa's name doesn't carry the same weight it once did, but, in tandem, Scorsese and Pacino paint a picture of how large he loomed over the American identity as a man who both promised the workers of this country a fair shake while maintaining his influence by aligning himself with the underbelly of society. Pacino has become associated more of late with his bad performances than his good ones, but he is absolutely magnetic as the ice cream-devouring, cocksucker-saying Hoffa. It's essentially the perfect Pacino part: Hoffa buttons up his misdeeds in a demure exterior that shuns alcohol, but every so often he explodes, mostly when railing against the Kennedys or his cigar-chomping nemesis Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham, one of the many Boardwalk Empire alums in the cast).