Staff Pick: “Donnie Brasco” (1997)


Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco 1997

For most of us, it’s difficult to imagine being an undercover cop. You’re often in dangerous situations, and you have to convince criminals that you’re one of them. As a part of that, you lose some of who you really are. It takes a toll on your personal life, fraying relationships with those you love. And then you often develop new bonds with the very people you’re investigating.

“Donnie Brasco” is based on a true story. Joseph Pistone infiltrated the Bonnano crime family as jewel thief under the alias of Donnie Brasco and lived to write a book about it. He gains the confidence of an aging Mafia hitman, Lefty Ruggiero, who vouches for him as he infiltrates his crew.

Al Pacino and Johnny Depp star as Lefty and Donnie, and the story revolves around the bond that grows between them. Both are brilliant in this film. We all know that Pacino is one of the great actors of our time, but that he can also dial things up at times with a bombastic style that approaches a caricature. Not here. This is the nuanced and understated Pacino who perfectly captures a character desperately trying to make it in a harsh world where younger members of his crew are passing him by. It’s fascinating to watch Pacino as a washed-up hit man in a crew as opposed to a Mafia kingpin.

Depp gives a strong performance as FBI agent Pistone posing as Donnie, caught between the crazy world of the Mob and a family life that’s slipping away from him. Anne Heche is excellent as his wife, a pretty blonde with two young daughters who can’t understand what’s happening to her husband. She wants him to quit, which isn’t surprising. Of course he stays, and he can’t help getting sucked in deeper and deeper. He wants to do his job, but he also doesn’t want to hurt Lefty.

The rest of the cast is also excellent, with Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby with prominent roles in Lefty’s crew. I also spotted young Gretchen Mol as Sonny’s girlfriend and young Paul Giamatti as an FBI technician.

The film was a hit with critics and the public, earning $124.9 million at the box office with a $35 million budget. Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars as he also found the relationship between Lefty and Donnie to be compelling. Ebert points out that British director Mike Newell was known for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “might seem like a strange choice for this material, but he’s the right one, because the movie is not really about violence or action, it’s about friendship.” Writer Paul Attanasio adapted the book written by Pistone and Richard Woodley and received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

There’s no shortage of mob movies, particularly those set in New York, but this one ranks up there with the better films in this genre. I left out a lot of the details here as I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it.


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