“Donnie Brasco” Movie Review
On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss Donnie Brasco as another cut and paste gangster movie. Full of talk about Made Men and getting “whacked”, peppered with the usual Italian/American mobster vernacular. But is this just another Goodfellas? Forget about it.
FBI Agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp) is given an undercover job to infiltrate the New York City Bonanno crime family. Adopting the name Donnie Brasco, he poses as a skilled jewel thief. He gains a footing after butting heads at mob hangout spot with Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino). Lefty is having a hard time with his health failing, his son a low life junky and his mob career going nowhere. When his trust in Donnie grows, and his need to have something to show for the last 30 years other a kill count of 26 people, he chooses to take this fresh faced newbie under his wing. Lefty vouches for Donnie to the rest of the family, leaving him accountable for all current and future actions in the Bonanno name by his new protege. Donnie also befriends Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano (Michael Madsen) who is soon promoted to Skipper of the group, the step Lefty had hoped to take by now. Donnie quickly moves his way up in the family, gaining the trust and respect of many of it’s members. However the deeper he goes, the more blurred the lines are between his two lives. Joseph Pistone is pushed aside when Donnie Brasco becomes the more full time persona.
Originally released in May of 1997, Donnie Brasco came as surprise for many of those who recognized the name of it’s director. At this point in time, his filmography was hardly ground breaking and his only truly notable major cinematic release was, wait for it….Four Weddings And A Funeral. Mike Newell had dabbled in more serious tones earlier on in his career but I’m pretty sure no one saw this coming. He managed to deliver a deep story with all the expected tropes of the gangster genre along some fantastic dialogue and hard hitting violence. One scene in particular was not shy of blood and something I won’t spoil here (but be warned, it is a bit visceral…) The performances here are outstanding, from Madsen playing his now famed rational blood thirsty maniac role to Al Pacino beautifully portraying the aging mobster. But this movie is made for actors like these, well versed in the ways of Gangster. The real shining role is Johnny Depp, who takes a more mature step in his career with this movie. Before Donnie Brasco, Depp was best known for playing heavily stylized and larger than life characters. But here we see a character with no unusual quirks, no strange mannerisms or worlds warped beyond the norm. Here we have a straight laced FBI Agent who strays down a deep dark path in to mobster life. It got people to pay attention to him and I believe this is role that put him where he is today because this was something no one had really seen him play. He may very well have become know as a character actor with a penchant for the absurd and out of this world, but at least from this we can see behind the costumes and make up beats the heart of a passionate actor who can play with the big boys and hold his own.
When Goodfellas made it’s mark on the cinematic world in 1990 it set the benchmark for it’s genre and will forever be the one to be compared to. So when Donnie Brasco, another true story about life in the mob came to life it was hard not to compare. But here’s the thing, they are more companion films than comparable. Goodfellas is about a kid who grew up knowing nothing else but life in the families and his evolution from gofer to as good as made. His experiences are told first hand by way of off screen monologue and quickly becomes a rags to riches story about drugs and his tumultuous relationships. Donnie Brasco on the other hand is centered around two men, who’s initial teacher/student relationship soon becomes true friendship and the territory than comes with living a double life. The majority of exposition here is told via typewriter, punching out reports on the undercover assignment which reaffirms the two sided nature to Joseph/Donnie’s situation.
The dialogue throughout contains some classic lines each with their own helping the three emotions I feel sum up what this movie is all about: Wisdom, Despair and Love. Each a driving force between the actions taken to get the jobs done no matter what stands in the way.
Overall, I think Donnie Brasco is an amazing piece of cinema. Both it’s director and main star both show they aren’t afraid to step out from their type casting and deliver a deeply involving and hard hitting look into living two lives in the world of organized crime and in Federal undercover operations.