Donnie Brasco (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Al Pacino in a Mafia movie feels as natural as peanut butter with jelly. Mike Newell, the director of such popular British comedies as Enchanted April and Four Weddings and a Funeral, is another matter altogether. When you think of a director for New York- based, mob-related motion pictures, names like Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese leap to mind. Unexpectedly, however, Newell slides effortlessly into the genre, fashioning a motion picture that is simultaneously like and unlike traditional wiseguy films.

Donnie Brasco is based on the true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), who went undercover and infiltrated the New York City mob during the late 1970s. Joe, who went by the name of "Donnie Brasco", played his role so effectively that he rose to extraordinary heights within the organization, holding a place alongside his mentor, Lefty (Al Pacino), in the inner circle of boss Sonny Black (Michael Madsen). But, the more time he spent with members of the Mafia, the more like them he became. And, after a while, Joe could no longer tell where his true loyalties lay: to his wife (Anne Heche), family, and government, or to the wiseguys who had adopted him into their exclusive club and lifestyle.

Perhaps the most impressive thing that Newell has done with Donnie Brasco is to cull an atypically low-key and introspective performance from Al Pacino, an actor known for manic, scenery-chewing efforts. Lefty is a world-weary hit man with 26 kills under his belt and little to show for it. "30 years, I'm bustin' my hump... for what?" he laments when he is passed over for promotion within the mob. His dream is to buy a boat and sail far away from civilization, but he doesn't have the money or the gumption to chase that golden fantasy. Pacino presents Lefty as a tragic, and at times pathetic, character who earns our pity and understanding, if not our sympathy. There's little hint of Michael Corleone here -- Lefty is an impotent doubter who knows how it will all end.

While not on Pacino's level, Johnny Depp is competent as the title character, a man who loses his perspective as he becomes seduced by the mobster's lifestyle. Depp lets us see the conflict within Joe as his friendship with Lefty grows into something real and as his wife and children become little more than distant images. Near the beginning of Donnie Brasco, Joe attempts to prevent a hit; by the end, he comes perilously close to taking part. If there are times when Joe's character doesn't seem whole, the blame lies more with the script's failure to provide the needed background or motivation than with Depp's performance.

Although Donnie Brasco is set against a backdrop of crime and violence (and Newell doesn't shrink from showing these elements, although he's more restrained than a Scorsese might be), it, like many better gangster films, is really about family and relationships. Lefty and Joe have a surrogate father/son bond that gradually supersedes all other attachments in either of their lives. As Lefty says at one point, "[The mob] is my family, even more than my [real] family." It's because Donnie Brasco focuses on characters and relationships that it makes for compelling viewing.

Although the film contains many of the usual mob cliches and stock secondary characters, these don't detract much from the viewer's enjoyment. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but many "based on real events" motion pictures aren't nearly as well-executed or involving as Donnie Brasco. The film has all the right little touches to be believable, such as Lefty's fascinating lesson to his protege about how to dress, act, and speak to be respected in wiseguy circles. Donnie Brasco takes us into a world that the movies frequently open to us, but somehow this trip seems more real and less glamorized than most. The result is a satisfying film going experience.

Donnie Brasco (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 1997-02-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1