BY THE TIME a key witness comes forward and puts a stop to all the crime in "GoodFellas," the relief is practically serene. It means no more horrifying murders, no more husbands cheating on their wives, no more double-crossings, no more red-eyed cocaine binges, and no more having to stir that tomato sauce.
But it also signals the conclusion to one of Martin Scorsese's most brutal but stunning movies, an incredible, relentless experience about the singleminded pursuit of crime. Suddenly Scorsese, who with Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma led the "significant directors" pack in the 1970s, stakes the first authoritative claim of the '90s.
Based on Nicholas Pileggi's true account, "Wiseguy," the movie is seen (and narrated) from the point of view of Henry (Ray Liotta), a child of Irish and Sicilian parents who joins the mob and starts a dizzying underworld career. "It was a glorious time," he relates, referring to his lucrative, glamorous adolescence with characters such as Johnny Roastbeef, Freddy No Nose and Jimmy Two Times (a repetitive type who says such things as, "I'm going to get the papers -- get the papers").
Working for protection-racket head honcho Paulie (Paul Sorvino), Henry becomes one of the "wiseguys," or "goodfellas," including classy Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and crazy Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). They work hard -- a little head-cracking here, a murder there, money everywhere. It's a sustained orgy of profiteering, a good time, one helluva living.
"For us to live any other way was nuts," Henry says. "It was just our routine. You didn't even think about it."
When Henry marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco), the movie's initially heady movements change to a minor, even bloodier key. Everyone gets deeper into the abyss, which has to do with a big $6 million score. A stalwart woman, Karen battles her husband's mysterious criminal and extramarital lifestyle, but even she can't escape the fall, the comeuppance that faces everyone. The movie has become an alarming nightmare of senseless violence, feverish drug taking, tears and paranoia. Scorsese increases the anxiety with one acid rock-era song after the other; they segue into each other. The narcs are circling overhead. You want to scream for air . . . .
The performances by everyone are stunning, standout. Liotta persuasively rings the changes from bright-eyed punk to maniacal-eyed pro. De Niro is at his seamless best, his face and body a virtuoso instrument of human gesture. As Tommy, who's just as likely to spin an amusing anecdote as shoot a waiter cold in the chest, Pesci is unforgettably alarming and endearing.
Scorsese seems to have gone for broke. But "GoodFellas," which he co-scripted with Pileggi, is not just a feature-length random killing spree. It's an unleashing of his talents. There's a gutsy passion there, as well as a horrifying, unblinking view of humanity. Artistically at least, Scorsese has managed to make crime pay.
GOODFELLAS (R) -- Area theaters.