DONNIE BRASCO (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Graphic Violence, Pervasive Strong Language, brief Nudity and Sexuality

Directed by: Mike Newell

Written by: Paul Attanasio

(based on the book DONNIE BRASCO: MY UNDERCOVER LIFE IN THE MAFIA by Joseph D. Pistone)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, Anne Heche, James Russo, Zeljko Ivanek, Gerry Becker, Andrew Parks, Robert Miano, Brian Tarantina, Rocco Sisto, Tim Blake Nelsen & Paul Giamatti

Based on an incredible true story, DONNIE BRASCO is a mafia movie that contains A-list talent, loads of suspense, and pretty much everything that fans of gangster cinema could ask for. This film was acclaimed during its 1997 theatrical run by both critics and audiences (making four times its budget back), and was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Though it doesn’t quite stack up to the pillar of Scorsese’s 90s gangster films (GOODFELLAS, CASINO), DONNIE BRASCO is a must-see for mob movie fans.

In a top-secret operation, FBI agent Joseph Pistone (Johnny Depp) has gone undercover as jewel thief “Donnie Brasco.” When “Donnie” attracts the attention of low-life enforcer Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), Joseph gains a position to take down one of the biggest crime families in the nation. This operation puts Joseph in a very dangerous spot as he’s forced to get down and dirty with these wiseguys, while constantly taking measures to maintain his cover. Soon enough, Joseph seems enraptured with his newfound criminal lifestyle…to a point where the FBI is concerned about his well-being and his wife (Anne Heche) realizes that he’s turning into “one of them.” Lots of suspense, mafia-related hijinks, and questionable morals follow as “Donnie” tries to complete his operation and escape with his life.

DONNIE BRASCO is different from other notable 90s gangster films because so much of it hinges on the Joseph’s undercover operation. There’s constant tension as the viewer wonders whether some blunder from a passing FBI agent or an unplanned event will unmask “Donnie’s” true identity. Even though we know that Pistone lived to write the memoir that inspired this film, DONNIE BRASCO keeps us on the edge of our seats. There’s something to be said about that quality alone. One intense moment comes early on as “Donnie” refuses to take his shoes off in a Japanese restaurant (because he has a wire hidden in his shoe)…only to result in a restaurant employee being beaten to a pulp. Another tense bit comes in “Donnie” being spotted by an air-headed coworker, while he’s standing right next to made-man “Sonny Black” (Michael Madsen). Small moments like these add even more danger to the proceedings.

As for the mafia material, DONNIE BRASCO carefully sets up details about the inner workings of the crime family. We learn what certain terms mean (“a friend of mine” or “a friend of ours”) and the signs that someone is about to get whacked (when you get “sent for”). These details are explained to the audience (as Pacino’s “Lefty” reveals them to Depp’s “Donnie”) and then pop up in the proceedings throughout. There are tense rivalries that make their way into the plot, while a few factual details have been switched up to provide a more tragic conclusion (though the real-life ending to this tale was bittersweet). Don’t expect loads of gun fights and blood, but DONNIE has its violent spots. One notable set piece comes in a shocking, though oddly satisfying execution sequence.

Despite the mafia driving this story forward, DONNIE BRASCO is at its most powerful when it examines the relationship between “Donnie” and “Lefty.” This plot element is beautifully executed as Johnny Depp and Al Pacino show wonderful chemistry on the screen. Depp’s “Donnie” is a convincing gangster and the way he snaps at the FBI (who almost get him killed on numerous occasions) causes the viewer to sympathize with him. Though he’s more famous for playing two iconic gangsters (Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER and Tony Montana in SCARFACE), Al Pacino disappears into his role as “Lefty.” Pacino turns this cold-blooded contract killer into a somewhat tragic figure, who shows a nice side to “Donnie” and becomes his best friend.

Though DONNIE BRASCO nails most of its material and builds a strong relationship between Pacino and Depp’s characters, the film slightly drops the ball in two areas. The first of these is the passage of time in the story. The real life “Donnie Brasco” operation took place over the course of six years and the film neglects to fill us in on these dates. It’s not necessarily crucial to the story, but it felt like this film’s plot took place over the course of a year (tops)…which was probably not the case at all.

The second area where DONNIE BRASCO has problems is the turbulent relationship between Joseph and his worried wife. I felt like this entire subplot was a little too scattered. During one scene, Joseph’s wife is telling him how much she hates him and goes as far as to change their home number so he can’t call his kids. Then a few scenes later, she’s sympathetic towards his plight and madly in love with him for no apparent reason. It felt like a few scenes were deleted between this character’s shift into concern. This messy subplot neuters the would-be emotional impact of Joseph’s final family scenes.

Despite a couple of nagging narrative flaws, DONNIE BRASCO is a fantastic film that’s sure to sink its hooks into fans of gangster stories. The performances from Al Pacino and Johnny Depp warrant a watch by themselves, besides the stellar turn from Michael Madsen as an underdog mob boss. This film is unlike many of the mafia movies I’ve sat through, due to its strong focus on a heartfelt relationship between two very unlikely friends and a constant air of suspense from the undercover operation. If this sounds up your alley, then I highly recommend checking out DONNIE BRASCO!

Grade: A-

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