|Written by Bill Warren|
|Saturday, 01 March 2008|
This is the best movie so far directed by British Mike Newell, otherwise probably best known for “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” His approach here is to treat “Donnie Brasco” as a character drama (with surprising amounts of comedy), dealing with the rougher stuff as it comes up. And the film also features wonderful performances by its two leads, Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.
Based on a true story, "Donnie Brasco" is about a deep friendship that's doomed from the moment it begins. Depp is the title character, a small-time crook on his way up; known as Donnie "The Jeweler" Brasco, he catches the attention of older Mafia "soldier" Benny "Lefty" Ruggiero (Pacino), who asks him to evaluate some jewelry. The way Donnie handles himself impresses the heck out of Lefty, and he immediately tries to bring Donnie into his branch of the mob. (In the movie, Lefty is a composite of the real Lefty, who had just been granted “made man” status when Brasco came along, and Sonny Black, here played by Michael Madsen. In reality, Donnie’s closest Mafia friend was Sonny Black.)
But Donnie Brasco is really Joe Pistone, an undercover FBI agent whose job is to infiltrate that very mob. We first meet Donnie/Joe after he's been undercover for some time, and he's already a little uncertain about all of this. It's causing a rift between him and his wife Maggie (Anne Heche), and he's not sure if he's really getting anywhere. We gradually realize that living two lives--FBI agent and husband-and-father--was already pretty hard on him; now he has to be Donnie Brasco, too.
He soon realizes Lefty is a sad, aging little mutt; his wife adores him, but his adult son is a junkie, and those above Lefty in the mob--which is almost everyone, despite his record of 26 hits—treat him with thinly-veiled (and sometimes open) contempt. Lefty not only likes Donnie from the moment he meets him, but he sees him as a real comer, someone who might finally help Lefty move up in the mob.
He already has all the rules down pat, as he explains to a bemused Donnie, whom he says might actually get to be a made guy eventually, actually a part of the Mafia. "A wise guy is always right, even when he's wrong," Lefty explains. He explains the very important difference between introducing someone as "a friend of mine" vs. "a friend of ours." Wise guys don’t work on Mother’s Day; wise guys always carry their money in a roll, he explains, and mustaches--such as the one that Donnie is wearing when they first meet--are absolutely against the rules. He even explains the intricacies of the common Italian gangster term, "fuhgetaboudit." Donnie himself explains the term to a couple of curious FBI underlings (played by, unexpectedly, Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson).
Lefty is devoted to the complex rules of Mafia society, and scrupulously lives by them, as if somehow just being a dutiful enough soldier will help him get ahead. He even understands how quickly, and how far, one can fall out of favor--the mob runs on fear and money, but Lefty thinks the secrets are loyalty and tradition. So when his boss Sonny Black (Madsen), and his two pals, quiet Paulie (James Russo) and wisecracking Nicky (Bruno Kirby) take him for a ride, Lefty thinks he's about to be killed. Instead, knowing he loves to watch wildlife documentaries, they give him a full-grown lion. (There's a very funny scene right after this, as Donnie and Lefty gingerly feed hamburgers to the lion, crouched in the back seat of a car. This really happened.)
Lefty has never quite given up on his sad sack son Tommy, but he gradually begins to regard Donnie with fatherly affection; the younger man eventually isn't just a means for Lefty to get ahead, but someone he has come to trust--even love.
And this is tearing Donnie apart, because he likes Lefty himself, yet knows that their friendship can only end in betrayal, and almost certainly in Lefty's murder (for bringing Donnie in). His connection with Lefty is working just as planned, but the plan never included becoming friends with this likable, warm-hearted murderer. The schism within Joe/Donnie starts coming out in disturbing ways. He begins to act like a Mafioso around his wife, even slapping her. In a Japanese restaurant, Joe refuses to take off his shoes (that's where he's hidden his tape recorder), which upsets the maitre d'--so Sonny, Lefty and the others haul the guy into the restroom and kick the crap out of him. High on the violence and his own tension, Donnie joins in himself.
Lefty is almost lovable, despite his profession. He's full of odd quirks--he smokes like a chimney, but frets about drafts when Donnie opens the car window a crack to let the smoke out--and he's something of a joke to the other mobsters, but he's sweet-natured, affectionate and loyal. I don't recall Pacino ever playing a more likable character--even though we see him shoot someone dead (a sudden, shocking scene), we never really stop liking him. Pacino doesn't use any of the obvious tricks to bring us to him emotionally; he never smiles (has Pacino ever smiled?), he doesn't act cute, he doesn't overdo the hangdog aspect of the role. Instead, the warmth and likeability come from somewhere inside him, expressed through his glances, his delivery, his small gestures. It's a splendid performance, easily one of the best of Pacino's career.
However, it's Depp who has the toughest role. He has to be two people at all times (for us), but only one for the mob, and yet once we know Donnie is really Joe, we have to see through his disguise, but never doubt that the mob guys are buying it. He can't really show his emotions, but has to keep everything bottled up—most of the time, he’s nearly expressionless. But he is split by this difficult, valuable work (more than one hundred convictions resulted from Pistone's undercover operation). He spends all day with the mob, hanging out in cheap bars, going to noisy nightclubs. And worse: Donnie has told Lefty he's an orphan, so the older man insists he spend Christmas day with him and his wife. As Lefty, who prides himself on his abilities as a chef, makes a wonderful meal, he's watched by his proud, loving wife, and heartsick Joe Pistone, still being Donnie Brasco.
His wife knows generally what his job is, but can't help wanting him home more, wants him to spend time with their children. She loves him, but eventually this wears on her so badly--the real Pistone was under cover for six years--that she threatens divorce. (This leads to a funny scene with a marriage counselor.)
This was another daring role for Johnny Depp, who thrives on them, and was unlike anything else he played up to this point--except that, of course, on "21 Jump Street" he was also an undercover cop, albeit of quite a different variety. He has to dampen down his reactions, not just with Lefty and the other mobsters, but with his wife, his FBI contacts, and everyone else. And yet he shares Donnie/Joe's anguish with us; it's a complex, tricky performance, as well as long--he's on screen almost all the time--and he brings it off splendidly.
Depp and Pacino are really the only two main characters, but the film has been very well cast, and not with the usual mob actors. Michael Madsen is the leader of Lefty's section of the mob, a mean, smart man whose dead eyes betray his utter soullessness. He gets ahead in the mob because he doesn't really care about anyone else, and those below him know it. They show loyalty only out of fear, and hopes of their own advancement.
Bruno Kirby is Nicky, the joker of the group, but like the rest of them, he's out for the main chance whenever he can get it, even breaking mob protocol to make a drug sale in Florida when Sonny’s gang is down there a while. Kirby's delivery is rapid-fire and very ethnic—the role was written with Joe Pesci in mind, but Kirby makes the role his own. Too bad he died so young. Other actors, like James Russo, Zeljko Ivanek, Zach Grenier and Val Avery make their own impressions as well.
So does the production. It's richly photographed by Peter Sova, mostly on New York locations. He and production designer Donald Graham Burt go for darker, muted colors in the New York scenes, but when--under FBI orders--Donnie convinces Sonny Black and the others to try out Miami, the movie explodes in bright, sassy colors. And the gangsters break out in the loudest polyester leisure suits in twenty years, thanks to witty costume design by Aude Bronson-Howard and David Robinson. They just love Miami, but there are snakes in the palm trees.
“Donnie Brasco" is less violent than most gangster movies, but there are some stunningly gruesome scenes, since that's the kind of guys they are. Sonny Black is highly suspicious of Sonny Red (Robert Miano), aka Rusty, a little further up the Mafia power structure than he is--and he has good reason to be suspicious. One of them, we never know which one, killed the don who was their boss early in the movie, and they're sniffing around each other thereafter. Finally, one of them takes direct action--and runs into the fact that the other Sonny beat him to it. The resulting bodies are cut up with hack saws, in a gory but oddly funny scene.
Mike Newell is been a hit-and-miss director; "Four Weddings and a Funeral" was a worldwide hit, and "Enchanted April" did well, too. But few went to see "Into the West.” Earlier, he did the ill-regarded "Amazing Grace and Chuck," while his next film, 1988's "Soursweet," wasn't even released in the U.S. You have to reach back in his career as far as "Dance with a Stranger" to find something that gives hints of what he brings off so well in "Donnie Brasco." That fine movie was a dark, disturbing drama about obsession and murder, and deserves another look. Since this movie, he hasn’t done very well. “Pushing Tin” and “Mona Lisa” smile were misfires; “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was just another Harry Potter movie. Last year’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” was savaged by critics. But “Donnie Brasco” still stands the test of time.
Paul Attanasio wrote "Donnie Brasco," and was Oscar-nominated for the screenplay. He had only two scripts produced before this, but one of those was "Quiz Show," and he created the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Streets." He's remarkably good with dialog, as even his script for "Disclosure" shows--not just in terms of writing snappy lines, but in revealing character, background and motivation, including hidden motivations, through dialogue. The only flaw in the script is that the structure is overbalanced; the "middle" of the film goes on too long, as does the movie in general. And the wrap-up is too brief. But otherwise, it's a fine screenplay, at least judging from the finished film. Since this movie, his only produced screenplays were “The Sum of All Fears” and “The Good German.”
Like many, I’d thought that Francis Ford Coppola, with his operatic "Godfather" trio, and Martin Scorsese, with his more realistic approach, had pretty much cornered the market on quality movies about the Mafia, and that the genre had worn out its welcome. But "Donnie Brasco" shows that a fresh, outsider's take on the genre can work, and work very well. Beyond being a showcase for two excellent performances, "Donnie Brasco" is a highlight in itself.
The DVD includes conversations with Attanasio and Newell, but nothing from Pacino, and nothing new from Johnny Depp. It’s adequate, but not especially illuminating. Nothing is said about the real mobsters depicted in the movie. The “making-of” short prepared for the movie’s original release is also included, as is a photo montage including dialogue from the movie and other sound bites.