Donnie Brasco (1997)

Posted: August 5, 2014 in Movie Review
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Director: Mike Newell

Starring: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, Anne Heche, James Russo, Andrew Parks

Like the country song, Al Pacino says it best when he says nothing at all. Certainly, his monologues at the end of movies like “…And Justice for All,” “Scent of a Woman,” and “The Devil’s Advocate” are always fun to listen to (and do much themselves to demonstrate the caliber of his skills as an actor), but it’s when Pacino is telling a story with his eyes (re: “The Godfather”) that you see the true genius of this man. He is given another such scene to perform during a crucial moment in “Donnie Brasco,” and it helps spare this from being just another gangster film. That his co-star is Johnny Depp, and that they have an equally terrific supporting cast, doesn’t hurt things either.

“Donnie Brasco” is based on the very real story of FBI Agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), who in 1978 was tasked with the assignment of infiltrating New York’s Bonanno crime family. Assuming the identity of jewel thief Donnie Brasco, Pistone befriends “Lefty” Ruggero (Al Pacino), a hit man who would like to have been much higher up in the chain of command at this stage in his life, after 30 years as a wiseguy. Lefty steers him on the right path whenever Donnie isn’t quite acting as a member of a mob family should. He sees a chance to live vicariously through Donnie Brasco, to make up for his failings both as a criminal and as a father.  Never once does Lefty actually believe his friend is working for the law.

Pistone’s family life is as crappy as Lefty’s, even if he doesn’t have a drug addict son. His relationship with his wife (Anne Heche) becomes horribly strained because of the time away from home his new assignment demands. He misses his daughter’s birthday for this job. He comes home at late hours after several weeks, staying only just for a few minutes, and then he’s gone again. To make matters worse, Pistone gets a little too comfortable in the role he’s playing, participating in a few gruesome activities. One particularly bloody event has Pistone helping to discard of three dead bodies with the help of a hacksaw. Above all, Pistone fears either being found out or pulled from his assignment, as in either scenario it’s likely to result in the death of someone he cares about.

Although the best decade of Al Pacino’s career is unquestionably the 1970’s, he’s put on several great shows in more recent times, his performance as Lefty being one of them. Despite the fact that we know he’s a monster, Pacino plays Lefty as a very sympathetic monster. Here is a man for whom life has passed him by, as have the younger men in the crime family, and it leaves him to ponder what might have been. Johnny Depp, like Pacino, is someone you can watch no matter the quality of the movie he is in. Pairing the two of them up really kicks it up a notch. They also get a great supporting cast, in particular Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby, both of whom, like Pacino, feel right at home in a movie like this (Kirby played the young Clemenza in “The Godfather Part II”).

It’s a good thing the cast is so exceptional because, to be honest, the story is somewhat ordinary. It seems somewhat cliched to say, but if you’ve seen one story about an agent of the law infiltrating a criminal organization, you really have seen them all. Inevitably, the hero starts to sympathize with the people he’s supposed to be bringing to justice, flirting with his own dark side before coming to his senses (or not). It’s extraordinary to think that the director of the fall-down funny “Four Weddings and a Funeral” could turn around and create this serious crime drama. If “Donnie Brasco” isn’t offering anything new, it does present the familiar material extremely well. A lot can be forgiven if you’ve done your job well… just as long as you aren’t pretending to be something you’re not.

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Comments
  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    I’ve seen almost all of Depp’s movies, but not this one. Sounds like I should watch this with you!!!!!

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