1997, R, 127 min. Directed by Mike Newell. Starring Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Gerry Becker, James Russo, Bruno Kirby, Zach Grenier, Brian Tarantina, Anne Heche.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Thu., May 30, 2002
Based on a true story, Donnie Brasco subverts the guns and gals glory of the New York wiseguy genre with a heavy dose of reality: the gangster lifestyle as evidenced by aging “made man” Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino) is less glamorous than it is plain hard work. Lefty and his crew – Sonny Black (Madsen), Nicky (Kirby), Paulie (Russo), and the assorted others – are low-level mafia shitworkers firmly entrapped in a rigidly controlled hierarchy. For them, there’s no way out of the wiseguy lifestyle and the only chance for advancement comes at the expense of a higher-up’s life. Into this sometimes exhilarating, always aggravating, world comes Donnie Brasco (Depp), a young “jewel man” who catches Lefty’s eye one day and is quickly taken into his confidence and, from there, into the inner circle of Lefty’s dangerous crowd. For all his mobster braggadocio, Pacino’s Lefty is a bitter, lonely guy: He boasts about his connections and his 26 hits but he also knows deep down that he’s destined to spin his wheels thanklessly, never rising above the lowly position he’s achieved. In Donnie, he sees a younger version of himself, a star-struck, pie-eyed paisan with big dreams and the smarts and ambition to get there. What Lefty doesn’t know is that his new recruit is an F.B.I. deep-cover agent sent to collect incriminating data on New York mafia dealings. Every time Lefty opens his big mouth to expound on the inner workings of the mob, he’s being recorded for posterity. Brasco, aka Joe Pistone, is having troubles of his own, though. He’s assumed so well the role he was chosen to play that the line between real life and mob life has begun to blur, and it occurs at the expense of his family, his job, and, ultimately, his emotional core. As he moves deeper into the mob, Brasco sees these workaday hoods for what they are – sorry, sad-sack errand boys, slaves to the chain of command not unlike himself – and this realization plays havoc with his assignment. This character is clearly a turning point for Depp. It’s his first genuine “adult” role (not counting the tedious Nick of Time), and it allows him the freedom and emotional range to move, speak, and deal with issues more as an actor and less as a brat-packer. He still has those youthful good looks, but at 34, Depp has finally scored a film that doesn’t ask him to play down his intelligence. Pacino, of course, is the heartbreaking core of Donnie Brasco. As Lefty, his weathered, reptilian face lights up the screen with the dismal glow of sodden failure; he’s the Willy Loman of mobsters. British director Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) may not have seemed like an obvious choice to helm an American wiseguy film, but despite his upbeat background, he nurtures Donnie Brasco's gritty, dark heart with a steady diet of chilly atmosphere (rarely has New York City seemed so hopeless). It always seems to be winter in Donnie Brasco’s town – the wind whipping off the Hudson, freezing the dreams in your veins, and congealing the best-laid plans.