Donnie Brasco (1997)

February 27, 1997

It’s interesting that many film critics of late have referred to the organized crime genre as dead, infertile ground that bears no life. Odd indeed, considering the prevalence of cinema today to relive its salad days through remakes and ‘updates’ of old TV shows and classic films… and the willingness of many of the same critics to trumpet these lifeless buck-grabbers as worthy of the theatregoer’s eight bucks. Let’s face it, a good film is a good film - and whether it was created within the Mexican horror-wrestling genre or the gangster genre is just semantics.

Donnie Brasco is just that - a good film, with a solid narrative and compelling performances from its actors. Director Mike Newell has a lot to make up for on this outing after schmalzting audiences to death with the cloyingly sweet Four Weddings and a Funeral, and he delivers the goods in stunning fashion. Donnie Brasco, like the Scorsese / Nicholas Pileggi collaborations Goodfellas and Casino, is based on a true story. Here, the true tale is the harrowing descent of FBI undercover agent Joseph “Donnie Brasco” Pistone (played by Johnny Depp) into the predatory world of wiseguys and made men.

Unlike Scorsese’s violent mediations, though, Newell and writer Paul Attanasio concentrate more on the dynamic relationship between Pistone and one “Lefty” Ruggiero, an aging veteran on the scene who unwittingly sponsors Pistone into his circle of wiseguys. Played astutely by veteran Al Pacino, Lefty is a wise man misplaced in a slovenly mess. Pacino gives Lefty a world-weary veneer that is urgent in its tragedy. This is Pacino’s best performance since Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s as if he’s giving us a peek at what Michael Corleone could have become, had he been beaten by the Mafia world instead of commanding it.

Johnny Depp is equally as adept here, and after his turn as William Blake in the astounding Dead Man, his Joseph Pistone is solid proof that he is one of the brightest talents south of the 49th. Depp’s baby face is wonderfully expressive - it’s as if his dialogue is somehow excessive, as his face communicates plenty more to an audience on a more powerful, visceral level. He manages to lose his huge real-life persona within the depths of this character. He becomes Joseph Pistone, just as Pistone became Brasco.

Donnie Brasco is compelling. It almost feels too short, even as its two hours-plus running time zips by. When it’s all over you almost want to leave and come back, in hopes that there’ll be more, as if the characters continue to live even after the film has run out. Even its 1970’s soundtrack seems bearable in context, and who can say that much about the hits of the 70’s? It isn’t the high water mark of mob movies (that’d be aforementioned The Godfather) but Donnie Brasco definitely delivers.

ISSN 1499-7894
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