Gangster Movie Month: "Donnie Brasco" Review


Gangster Movie Month: "Donnie Brasco" Review

-- Rating: R (strong graphic violence, pervasive strong language, sexuality, and brief nudity)
Length: 127 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 28, 1997
Directed by: Mike Newell
Genre: Biography/Crime/Drama

Johnny Depp takes on a dual role in "Donnie Brasco," playing both an FBI agent named Joe Pistone and the titular character who Joe becomes in order to infiltrate the mob. Trying to infiltrate the mob is no easy task and requires complete immersion in that world, so Joe must leave behind his wife Maggie (Anne Heche) and their children to become Donnie. He tries to call them whenever he can sneak away but often goes weeks at a time without any contact with them.

This weighs heavily on him, until he is distracted by a meeting with Lefty (Al Pacino), a low-level mobster who can't seem to catch a break or get a promotion. He has killed nearly thirty people in his thirty years in the mafia but is completely broke and has nothing to show for his hard, illegal work. After a shaky introduction, Lefty takes young Donnie under his wing and tries to get him some attention from mob boss Sonny Black (Michael Madsen), who is about to get promoted yet again while Lefty founders in the trenches. It turns out that Lefty is a good teacher, and Donnie quickly begins to crawl up the mafia ladder. During this time, his bond with Lefty grows, and the old man bursts with pride as his protégée, who has become something of a son to him, blossoms.

Soon, Donnie begins to understand why so many people wish to join the mob and ascend the ranks. It may be gritty, unglamorous work for guys like Lefty, but if you can reach the top, it is fairly lucrative and rewarding. Donnie likes it so much that he begins to question whether or not he should try to return to his estranged wife in the suburbs. They are strangers at this point, with Maggie going so far as to say that she pretends she is a widow, because that is how she feels. He has to shoulder this huge burden alone because he can't share it with anyone, even Lefty. However, Lefty begins to suspect Donnie is not who he says, a revelation that he knows he must disclose to Sonny. He is caught between his loyalty for the man he considers a son and the mob boss who doesn't care about him.

Pacino is no stranger to movies about gangsters, having taken leading roles in "The Godfather" trilogy and "Scarface." The difference between those movies and "Donnie Brasco" is that these characters ruled with an iron fist and had control of their crime syndicates at some point. Lefty is a mob bottom feeder who repeatedly gets passed up for promotion by guys who have put in far less time on the job. He is also incredibly lonely, admitting that the mafia people who take him for granted are more his family than his actual blood relatives are.

By the time the film came out, Depp was already known as an intense actor who had taken on many dramatic roles. However, none of these was quite as serious as Donnie, which forced him to take on a dual identity with a myriad of layers. He portrays Donnie as a cautious and suspicious undercover FBI agent who is eventually seduced by the power, money, and prestige of mob life once he begins to ascend the ranks. This transformation is a joy to watch and keeps viewers invested in Donnie's eventual fate.

If movie fans were ever asked to name the best mobster film directors, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma would likely top the list. Before "Donnie Brasco," Mike Newell's name would have never come up. He is best known for "Four Weddings and a Funeral," the 1994 Hugh Grant comedy. On the surface, he seems to be an unlikely choice to direct a mob drama; however, "Donnie Brasco" focuses as much on friendship as the mob, allowing Newell's talent to shine through. The budding relationship between Donnie and Lefty is the real heart of the film, though Newell is no slouch when it comes to mob violence. He doesn't shy away from the occasional kill to give the audience a shocking dose of the reality of Donnie and Lefty's world. Newell's instincts and restrained use of violence combine to create an engrossing and poignant film that ranks with some of the best mob dramas ever filmed.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars