MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Crime Drama/Stars: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche, Željko Ivanek, Gerry Becker, Robert Miano, Brian Tarantina, Rocco Sisto, Zach Grenier, Walt MacPherson, Ronnie Farer, Terry Serpico, Gretchen Mol, Tony Lip, George Angelica, Val Avery, Madison Arnold, Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Giamatti/ Runtime: 126 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that even though the vast majority of both casual movies and film scholars in equal measure might be willing to claim either The Godfather Saga (and yes that does include 3) or Scorsese’s GoodFellas from 1990 as the say all, end all entry in the genre of movie magic that is the gangster film, I do feel that there are some as a result are criminally overlooked. One of these examples incidentally is the slice of cinematic pie I am reviewing today, a 1997 gangster crime drama known as Donnie Brasco. I mean don’t get me wrong dear reader: the other slices of cinematic pie I mentioned truly do deserve the recognition and legacy they have managed to obtain as being the pinnacle of success for this particular genre. At the same time though, I feel that Donnie Brasco is a great entry in the legacy of Mafia in film in its own right since it chooses to take a closer look at the base of the mob pyramid rather than the very top. Also rather than concentrating on a mafioso’s ascension to the top of the hierarchy or someone already at the top’s subsequent tragic and calamitous fall from power, this slice of cinematic pie is one that chooses to concentrate more on the internal squabble that occurs between having compassion for your fellow man and being torn by having the impulse to engage in behaviors that may or may not be perhaps the most legal in the world. Most of all though, Donnie Brasco is also, thanks to terrific helmsmanship from director Mike Newell and powerhouse performances from a talented cast with particular regard to the work done by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, a morality saga that functions as an analysis of the power loyalty can have in certain worlds, feeling like you are alone in the world both on a figurative and/or literal level, and also how even the best of us can lose sight of who they really are when placed in a world that is very much the antithesis of everything they may have been trained to detest and the temptation just proves to finally be perhaps too much to resist….
The plot is as follows: Based on a true story, this slice of cinematic pie takes us back to New York City in the 1970s when organized crime was at perhaps its pinnacle and introduces us to a young man by the name of Donnie Brasco as he makes his way into the fold of the Bonanno Crime Family by making the acquaintanceship of an older member of the “family” by the name of Lefty Ruggiero. A “company man” whose work function is that of a hitman yet who primarily seems to relish every opportunity possible to voice his displeasure at how horribly he has been pushed to the side all these years despite everything he has done for the organization. Suffice it to say with his own kid not exactly up to snuff (and Brasco seemingly always willing to lend an ear and hear what he has to say), it isn’t too surprising to see Lefty soon come to see in Donnie a surrogate son, a dear friend, and above all a protégé to whom he can give all his knowledge about life in the family to. As for Brasco, he too finds himself, much to his own internal astonishment, developing a genuine bond and close friendship with the older mobster even though he has a secret that he tragically knows will eventually see this whole thing come collapsing down and his mentor/dear friend being tragically murdered in retaliation. That of course being the fact that Donnie Brasco is actually a member of that distinct law enforcement agency known as the FBI and whose real name is actually Joseph “Joe” Pistone. However, we soon begin to see that the more Pistone/Brasco immerses himself in this perilous world, the more he begins to doubt the decisions he will have to make to say nothing of the fact that his real life, and relationships with both his wife and kids, begins rapidly falling apart and it isn’t long before that proverbial line between friend and foe begins looking a whole lot more blurry….
Now there are people who I have watched this distinct slice of cinematic pie with who have told me they loved it through and through except for one key element to the whole proceedings. That of course being that this slice of cinematic pie has a narrative that you can predict from a mile away just where everything is going to go. In all fairness, this is a criticism that is absolutely true and I am not going to try to lie and tell you otherwise. However, I will say that this predictability is actually not as much of a deterrent as you might think. That’s because by being able to see just where this film is going to wrap things up, you are put in the exact same position as the main character and his inner conflict in regards to what he will eventually must do to these men, with particular regard to Lefty, he has come to see as dear friends if not family. With the possible exception of that though, the rest of the technical ingredients behind the camera are simply terrific. Indeed the helmsmanship by Mike Newell is low-key in the best way possible, and the script this slice of cinematic pie is working with is equal parts contemplative, subtle, and above all genuine. Not only in how it manages to give us a chance to actually brush past the superficialities that may be in play in these men’s lives, but also in how it gives them the opportunity to bare their souls for the audience so that way we can really get to know them. Not as mere archetypes like some other movies in this genre would do mind you, but rather as three-dimensional human beings very much like you or me.
Above all other positives though, the one that is perhaps the best thing that this slice of cinematic pie has going for it would be the powerhouse performances at the heart of it by both Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Indeed I know Depp has had his legal struggles as of late to say nothing of some questionable roles on his resume throughout his career (looking at you Mortdecai from 2015). Yet the fact still remains that the man is a phenomenally talented actor who can give audiences one heck of a performance when given the right material (Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Edward Scissorhands to name a few). Suffice it to say it is the latter category that his role in Donnie Brasco is a proud member of. Indeed in the titular role, Depp manages to do a wonderful yet powerful job as both the faux mobster who finds a new family in the men he is supposed to be bringing down and the genuine federal agent who finds himself having a hard time accepting that he has given a man he has come to care very much about a death sentence that could come at any point in time. Suffice it to say then that this is easily one of the finest moments of Depp’s career and one he deserved at the least an Oscar nod for. The same could easily be said for screen legend Al Pacino in his role of Lefty. Indeed known for being quite over the top in terms of his performances (take his Attica, Attica dialogue in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon or quite a few moments in 1995’s Heat for example), Pacino actually manages to do a wonderful low-key job here. Indeed as Lefty, Pacino gives us a guy who has been around the block a time or 5, but who even after all he has done is still yearning to be recognized for his accomplishments and finds in Donnie not only a friend, but someone who, for the first time in his life, both respects him and treats him like an equal. Suffice it to say it’s a wonderfully soulful and human to say nothing of iconic performance from a true cinematic legend who has given us quite a few of those performances throughout his entire career even if the majority were way more boisterous than this one ever has any desire of being. Suffice it to say then that although these 2 are aided by terrific support work from such wonderful performers as Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche, Paul Giamatti, and Tim Blake Nelson to name but a few, this slice of cinematic pie works on the level that it ultimately does because the 2 lead performers are operating at the peak of their respective acting abilities and give us a pair of performances that are very much reflective of that.
All in all anchored by a pair of electric lead performances courtesy of Johnny Depp and Al Pacino, terrific support work from a game supporting cast, and a narrative that is equal parts gripping, thrilling, and emotionally potent, Donnie Brasco is more than just a fine entry in the genre of movie magic known as the gangster film. Rather, this is also a powerful slice of cinematic pie that serves as a window into the heart and soul of a man who finds himself torn between two worlds. The first of these is the real world where the men he has infiltrated are supposed to be seen by members of his profession as nothing more than scum and dragged off to jail for the rest of their lives. The second on the other hand is the world he has invented and where these same men aren’t seen by him as mere felons; rather they are no more and no less than family. Suffice it to say then that this is a film that asks the question of just what would happen if the lines between a pair of worlds such as these dangerously began to blur and as a result, it wasn’t just this law enforcement officer’s investigation didn’t just come under threat of being compromised. Rather, it was also his sense of self and his conscience which did as well. Suffice it to say then that there are good mob movies, there are great mob movies, there are excellent mob movies, and then there are criminally underseen mob movies and this slice of cinematic pie is perhaps one of the finest examples of the latter category I have seen to date. Make of that what you will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Donnie Brasco “97” a solid 4 out of 5.