Another Look: Donnie Brasco (***) is coasting on Goodfellas’ press

Amazon.com: Donnie Brasco Poster Movie C 11x17 Johnny Depp Al ...
Donnie Brasco – 1997

Director Mike Newell
Screenplay Paul Attanasio based on the book by Joseph D. Pistone, Richard Woodley
Starring Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche

It took me over 20 years to finally watch this entire film. Now that I have finished, I can’t say I regret putting it off. The story is based on the true life undercover work of Joseph Pistone. He infiltrated the Bonanno family mob at a mid-level and eventually got a bunch of them indicted and processed into the legal system.

Part of the challenge for me is Al Pacino. He’s a good actor who’s been doing the same role for years. This time, as Lefty, he is the bad guy with a soft heart and mush for intellect. He’s the target for Joe Pistone in his alter-ego, Donnie Brasco played by Depp.

When the story starts, Donnie is hanging around the same joint as Lefty and the rest of his crew. The crew is headed by Madsen’s Sonny Black. Only Lefty doesn’t realize it yet. When he lectures Donnie about a misunderstanding involving an appraisal of a fake diamond, he tells Donnie everyone knows “…Lefty from Mulberry Street.” He’s a lifetime soldier looking to get his due.

Lefty takes a liking to Donnie, and he introduces him to his connections. But only after trying to vet him. Lefty takes the risk of introducing him to his boss, then his bosses’ boss. We hear Lefty tell Donnie all about made guys and the like. Lefty is faithful, if dismissive to his woman. His son, like many sons, doesn’t like him much. He is part of an army that is real personal in its battles. When Donnie compares it as such, Lefty straightens him out.

“Bullshit. The army is some guy you don’t know telling you to go whack some other guy you don’t know.”

Meanwhile, Donnie is taking some heat at home with his wife (Heche), who is tired of him being away on important dates like Christmas. He has a gaggle of kids of varying ages. We don’t see some of them. It’s hard to care too much about this trope. We’ve seen it too many times before to wonder if this time he won’t slap her around a little bit. Because, you know, he loves her so much.

Soon enough, a boss gets wacked. Lefty gets “sent for,” and we discover that Sonny Black is both his greatest asset and his biggest fear. Lefty survives, but Sonny Black moves Donnie up the chain.

One of my favorite things to do during period pieces from not that long ago is to place songs from the soundtrack to the year they were presenting. If one doesn’t bother to place the right song in chronological order with the events, it’s an indication that they may be taking other things less seriously. This time, we get to hear a few songs, like Neil Diamond’s Love on the Rocks, released in 1980, right around the time the gang discovers that Elvis died, in 1977.

There are also cars, televisions and gas prices that were available only post 1990. I suppose, like the filmmakers must have, that none of this will matter in 100 years.

Depp and Pacino are both pretty good in their respective roles. It’s interesting seeing Depp play straight for once. Most of his roles involve some quirk or another. This time, he’s just a guy who’s fallen for another guy in a very manly way.

Pacino is tougher for me to appreciate. He does the same thing in almost every role, but that thing is not done by almost any other actor. Alternating between loud, brash and over the top or, here, mostly a softy, he’s one of a kind. Just one who’s copied himself ad nauseum. If you don’t believe me, ask John Cusack, Sean Pean, Chris O’Donnell, Hilary Swank, Keanu Reeves, Colin Farrell or finally a badly de-aged Robert DeNiro. He’s always the flawed elder in the relationship.

There are quotes throughout the film that are really pretty good. If one had heard them here first, they would resonate more. No, I am not talking about any of the various phrasings of “Forget about it.” If it weren’t Depp talking to Giamatti for that whole routine, they could have left it out.

It’s bittersweet seeing Bruno Kirby, even in this small of a role. His talent was such that he could have played a bigger part, but happily made a success out of any role. Even one that may not necessarily fit his ability.

Heche is competent in her role as the bitter, angry wife. It’s understandable the lengths she went through to get some traction on her career in Hollywood. She has never been a great actress, but always a good one. Hollywood often spits those out ahead of their time.

For his part, Newell pieces together a pretty good 70’s style film covering stuff that happened in the seventies. It even has Serpico in a cameo. The pub for this is difficult to understand, unless one ponders the glowing time between Goodfellas (a film whose development actually pushed Donnie Brasco back) and The Sopranos. I have seen it 2+ times now. It is entertaining, but not really essential.

The events don’t pan out to much more than what has been portrayed in other, better films. It’s not a bad onboarding spot. Just don’t settle here and think you’ve seen a great mob film.

(*** out of *****)

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