Does the world need another mob movie? Do we still have the blood
lust for Mafia minutia? Are there any actors left who can carry on the
DONNIE BRASCO avoids answering these questions and contents itself
with being a true story. Just the facts ma'am. The mob in this movie
is neither glamorous nor particularly horrifying - just a bunch of
working-class stiffs out to make a living. Some of their anxieties are
common ones we can identify with such as being passed over for
promotion (being "upped") or working hard for the company and not being
recognized. Others, such as being "whacked," certainly exceed the fear
of being downsized. At least if you lose your job, in most firms death
is not part of the severance package.
Director Mike Newell, whose recent work has been with such
wonderful, lighthearted comedies as FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, sets a
factual tone from the beginning. The script by Academy Award nominated
writer Paul Attanasio (QUIZ SHOW) lacks the gimmicks and sensationalism
of typical Mafia films. (The script is based on the book "Donnie
Brasco: Undercover Life in the Mafia" by Joseph Pistone and Richard
Woodley.) The gangsters in this film are much more human and
accessible characters. They perform terrible deeds certainly, but none
are awarded the mythical and heroic status most such pictures bestow on
Johnny Depp, perhaps the best young actor in the business, gives
his usual outstanding performance as undercover agent Joe Pistone, who
was known to the mob as Donnie Brasco. In 1978, after two years of
undercover work, Joe breaks into the mob through his connection to
wiseguy Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino). Just as actors get into character
for a part and have trouble breaking out, so does Joe. Joe is
transformed body and soul into a wiseguy wannabe. The tight culture
and family of the Mafia draw him in so that he becomes increasing
estranged from the FBI and from his wife, Maggie (Anne Heche), and his
three lovely daughters. It's difficult keeping the family together if
you can only see them sporadically. All of this notwithstanding,
Pistone was one of the most important FBI plants ever. Hundreds of
people were convicted because of his courage and tenacity.
Pacino's Lefty looks at first like a consummate professional
crook. He is the cock of the walk. With Orwellian logic, he explains
to Donnie that, "A wiseguy is always right - even when he is wrong."
With the power of a made man, he makes Donnie "connected," which
means that Lefty is his mentor and no one will dare touch Donnie. If
Donnie plays his cards right, someday he too could join the inner
circle and become a wiseguy. (As you watch their antics, you realize
that the moniker wiseguy has such great irony. Wise they are not.
Their success comes solely from their position and the fear they
induce. Lefty has trouble even breaking into a parking meter to steal
Lefty turns out to be a bitter second string player, who, although
he constantly boasts of 26 kills, secretly fears he will be whacked by
one of the more successful wiseguys. "Thirty years I'm busting my
hump," complains Lefty. "What have I got?" He derives more pleasure
in cooking than trying to figure out the next job to pull. "Who am I?"
he complains. "Who am I? I'm a spoke on a wheel." Together Pacino
and Depp turn in two fascinating performances with believable macho
chemistry between the two of them. Lefty becomes Donnie's surrogate
father, buddy, and constant companion.
The richly textured story focuses on the day-to-day life and
schemes of the Mafia. The story concentrates on relationships and
political intrigues rather than violence.
A well developed subplot deals with the difficulties of Donnie's
home life and tells this part of the story with a realism I have not
seen before. You empathize with the wife and kids, and yet Depp
transfers the feeling of being trapped so that you can understand both
sides. Ultimately, Donnie recognizes and resents his transformations.
"I'm not becoming like them," he confesses to Maggie. "I am them."
A poignant, but funny vignette has Joe and Maggie seeking
counseling to avoid divorce. Therapists lack training on dealing with
the stress caused by being an undercover cop. Their inept therapist
gives them lectures full of jargon that are so far off base that they
border on parody.
The script is highly polished. In one beautifully written scene
Donnie explains to his FBI comrades the nuances of the five subtlety
different pronunciations of "Forget about it."
Director Mike Newell's skill can be seen throughout. He does not
excuse the horrors of Lefty's profession, but he has a deft sense of
when to back off. This can be seen in potentially the most horrific
act of violence in the picture. Newell shows just enough so that the
actions are clear, but he does not let his cameras linger. The
resulting image possesses a humorously macabre feeling.
Joe couldn't leave his work at the office like most of us. This
unglamorized view of his travails as an undercover agent is
mesmerizing. If you think you have seen it all when it comes to the
mob, think again. Even if you could care less about organized crime,
DONNIE BRASCO is as interesting an exploration of the human spirit and
failings as it is a story about crime and moral turpitude.
DONNIE BRASCO runs 2:06. It is rated R for violence, profanity,
and sexuality. It would be fine for most teenagers. I highly
recommend the film to you and give it *** 1/2.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes