Thursday, July 19, 2012

Donnie Brasco (1997)

A First-rate Undercover Gangster Gem with a Heart! 

Two of my least favorite cinema genres are the romance weepies and the Mafiosi gangster types. Agreed there have been numerous classics in these genres but dig deeper and you’ll find both far too formulaic and devoid of authentic human interests to excite me. Besides, their blueprints are quite alike, especially the mobster types - A very unsurprising (and mostly) boring plot that serves only to set up episodic scenes of betrayal, lust, brutal violence and usually gory deaths in the finale. One generally rates these films by the originality of the script, the suave protagonist, the scheming villain or the acute shock and abhorrence of the killings. I think Horror films do a much better job here! 

There are some brilliant exceptions though!! A very few indeed and the Oscar nominated Donnie Brasco (1997) tops my personal list. Based on the true story of a FBI agent - Joseph D. Pistone, who infiltrated the organized crime Bonanno family in New York in the late 1970s, it stars Johnny Depp playing the title character Donnie Brasco, aka, 'The Jewel Man' and a terrific Al Pacino as Lefty, a small-time hood, the guy with the right connections who takes on Donnie as his protégé and opens doors into his crime union.

Well-told cinematic stories of undercover cops and FBI agents have been surefire suspense rides over the years, from the film noir days of T-Men and White Heat to later examples like Miami Vice, Rush, Hard Boiled – actually there are too many to mention. Although the ever present likelihood of Donnie's cover being broken sustains an underlying tension through the film, the great script (adapted from Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, Pistone’s Book with Richard Woodley) astutely, is far more concerned with the human drama of Donnie's convoluted relationship with his gangster mentor. 

Pacino tones down some of the overacting he can be sometimes prone to and gives a stirring performance who Donnie comes to see as just a working stiff really, with his own unhappy life and his many problems and his disgruntled dreams. For Al Pacino’s Lefty, Donnie Brasco becomes a solid friend and surrogate son. Only when he's in too deep, does Donnie realize how he has endangered Lefty's life by exploiting him for a risky undercover sting, and this leaves him struggling with divided loyalties. 

In addition to this absorbing drama of Donnie’s dilemma, the movie also gives us a thoroughly believable peep into the secret environment of the underworld, emphasizing the daily realities over the violence. Surprisingly, there is only one scene of graphic violence in the film. 

Spinning a different note, Donnie Brasco is not set in the likes of the Godfather films, which showed life among the big bosses. This is about the lower rung – the street-level hoods and hsutlers who stoop to the pettiest of crimes (stealing from parking meters for instance ) to deliver the mandatory "take" each month to a higher boss, for fear of far deadly consequences. 

The diverse cast of Donnie Brasco including Michael Madsen, Anne Heche, James Russo and Bruno Kirby is uniformly first-rate, and other praiseworthy contributions are the realistic 1970s production design and the melancholic mood-setting theme and vintage soundtrack by composer Patrick Doyle

Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) create a bleak dirty mobworld of nastiness and perennial suspicion, and I think its a far more evocative depiction than the false romanticism of Coppola's The Godfather triology or the high-spirited blood-riddled tone of Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas. Perhaps Donnie Brasco is one of the few gangster movies that bravely flout the mobster formula and opt for emotional human drama over needless bloodshed. Strongly recommended!

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  1. Very well written! Donnie Brasco is one of my favorite movies of the 90s. After seeing Pacino delivering a sequence of over-the-top performances it was really pleasing to see him underplay his Lefty. Also, his comic timing in the movie is really great. Depp was going through a purple patch in the late 90s and his performance in Donnie Brasco is up there with his very best. Despite the inherent sense of monotony associated with gangster flicks, Donnie Brasco indeed serves to be a breath of fresh air :-)

    1. Thanks Murtaza! Yeah, Pacino tends to get hammy in many movies but he was fantastic in this one. Wonder why this movie missed an Oscar nomination for him!

  2. Thanks for the review of this old movie.Both Depp and Pacino are favorite actors of mine.

  3. Donnie Brasco is a great one. Depp and Pacino work perfectly together. Fun and dark and yes it has heart! great review!

  4. Thanks Brent,thanks Mattias! I guess you can never go wrong with Depp and Pacino!

  5. Agreed! Donnie Brasco is a tour de force in acting and direction. Terrific film!


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