movie film review | chris tookey

Donnie Brasco

© Unknown - all rights reserved
  Donnie Brasco Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
Average Rating
8.00 /10
Lefty Ruggiero ..... Al Pacino , Joe/Donnie ......... Johnny Depp , Sonny .............. Michael Madsen
Full Cast >

Directed by: Mike Newell
Written by: Paul Attanasio , based on the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia and Joseph Pistone and Richard Woodley.

Released: 1997
Genre: CRIME
Origin: US
Length: 121


The true story of how undercover FBI agent Joe Pistano (Johnny Depp) infiltrated the Mafia during the Seventies under the name Donnie Brasco, and helped arrest over 100 career-criminals.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

It’s a thrilling tale, and Depp makes us feel the stomach-churning suspense as he tries to talk his way out of trouble, share his shame as others are beaten up to preserve his own bona fides, experience his frustration as his brutally demanding job threatens his marriage. We come to understand the loyalty he feels towards his mentor within the Mob (Al Pacino).
The film is based on Pistano’s own memoirs, and they provide great source material. He knows the minutiae of the Mob: the rules, the phraseology. They made him shave off his moustache (“A moustache is against the rules”). They instructed him in Mob etiquette. They taught him how to dress (badly). A lot of this is funny and a bit like conforming within any big company, but always there is the sense that something may go wrong at any moment. Getting fired in this context means something awfully terminal.
In an ending of savage irony, we see the pathetically small reward which Pistano receives for his heroism - a medal, five hundred dollars and a lifetime looking over his shoulder. To this day, twenty-two years later, the real-life Pistano lives secretly in the FBI witness programme, with a half-a-million dollar contract for anyone who kills him.
Johnny Depp proves once again that he is America’s foremost young screen actor. His misfortune until now is that he has been at his best in films which few paying customers have gone to see: Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Don Juan DeMarco. He’s probably too restless and versatile, too drawn to risky projects, ever to become a superstar, but this is another performance of marvellous range, depth and delicacy.
If you are in doubt that Al Pacino is up there with the all-time-greats, see this movie. Pacino often has a tendency to rant and rave, but this time he keeps himself under control. From the moment he enters, comically aggrieved at being under-appreciated despite having committed 26 murders, and belligerently self-important in the way that only small-time, longterm losers can be, Pacino’s Lefty Ruggiero is a wonderfully memorable character - part whipped bloodhound, part rattlesnake. By the end, Lefty has achieved an epic, tragic grandeur as the Willy Loman of the American underworld.
The outstanding script is by Paul Attanasio, who created the equally intelligent Quiz Show. The scenes which depict the growing affection between Brasco and Leftie are superb - full of feeling but never sentimental. By the end, their interdependence has become an archetypal father-son relationship, with Pacino pouring his wounded pride, and frustrated hopes into his surrogate son’s career. Depp is duly grateful and even affectionate, but aware that he will have to become his own man in the end, and betray him.
Other splendid performances come from Michael Madsen, as the most dangerously brooding, upwardly mobile member of Brasco’s gang, and Anne Heche as Brasco’s longsuffering wife - neither the harpie nor the doormat we’re used to in this kind of movie . Typical of the film’s attention to detail is a wonderfully offbeat, perceptive scene where Donnie goes with his wife to marriage counselling, and we - and Donnie - realise how far he’s drifted beyond the limits of conventional, civilised society.
Britain’s Mike Newell - best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral - was a surprising choice to direct , but he positions the camera impeccably and helps the actors find every bit of the humanity within the story. Further British input comes in the form of Patrick Doyle’s excellent, atmospheric score.
Some people may feel jaded at having seen too much of this kind of small-scale gangsterism before on screen. Habitual movie-goers will already have sniggered at Mafia dress-sense in Married to the Mob , experienced the shock of the brutality in Good Fellas, felt the suspense of undercover work in State of Grace.
However, this is the most authentic-looking film I’ve seen about working undercover, and one of the most perceptive about the Mafia. Easily the best gangster picture since GoodFellas , it resembles Scorsese’s masterpiece in the way it in fully conveys the appeal of being a mobster, without ducking the moral implications.
Yet it’s able to discover good among the evil, moments of surreal humour to offset the grimness. It’s full of fresh, funny scenes like the one, surely destined to be a classic, when Depp explains to his FBI colleagues the various, contradictory nuances of the Mob phrase “forgeddaboutit”. Donnie Brasco works as both a tense thriller and a moving drama. The one thing you won’t be able to do is forgeddaboutit .

Key to Symbols