Film Review: Mike Newell, “Donnie Brasco” (1997)


‘Donnie Brasco’ tells the remarkably true story of an undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone, who in the 70’s infiltrated a New York crime family under the alias ‘Donnie Brasco’. 

  Donnie soon gets close to ‘Lefty’ who is a made man in the Mafia who teaches him the rules and introduces him to the others, as result unknowingly allowing the FBI to know of their plans due to Donnie wearing a wire. During the course of the film, Donnie gets increasingly involved with this group of Mafioso’s and by the end has become a well-respected and well liked associate, who is even up for consideration to become a made man (this would be depending of course on his take on being in on a hit). Nearing the final act of the film in a heated discussion with his disapproving wife, he says “I’m not becoming like them – I am them”. Donnie doesn’t want to hurt these now close friends of his by revealing his occupation, however they do come to be made aware of this to their surprise. At the end of the film, the death of Lefty is greatly hinted at, due to him allowing the gang to become infiltrated and the fate of the other characters is not revealed.

The film stars Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco, in what is up to now the only role Depp has had in any film that I’ve actually enjoyed. When I see that he’s in any film as anything more than a walk on part my heart instantly sinks at the same pace as my already seemingly low expectations of him. Despite this, I still went into this film open minded, and it’s a good job too. I think that Depp along with the rest of the cast did a fantastic job here at bringing this story to life. The part of gangster ‘Lefty’ a character who is mostly ignored by those higher in the ranks was given to Al Pacino. This at first glance I thought was a strange casting decision and perhaps just an attempt at getting another big name star into the film, but how I was wrong. Pacino plays a much quieter and calmer, more relaxed role in comparison to his usual parts in other gangster flicks such as the role of Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’, and Tony Montana in ‘Scarface’ – and better yet it works. Playing Mob boss Sonny in the film was the towering Michael Madsen who can play threatening characters so convincingly he could be a real life ‘wiseguy’. Strangely for a gangster film, there’s actually little violence depicted on the screen, and the focus is more on the central characters Donnie and Lefty as well as the FBI side of things.

We see the film focus on family, and loyalty strongly, and Donnie even begins spending more time with these gangsters than his own family. Interestingly, for me one of the best aspects of the film is how Donnie is taught the rules of the Mafia, as he learns them, so does the audience. This factor in the film makes it perfect as a ‘first’ gangster film; for anyone not familiar with certain Mob traditions and terminology, they can be picked up pretty quickly in this film and then applied to others. Lefty’s final scene in the film sees Pacino bring a huge amount of emotion to the role, then leaving a heart-breaking hole in the film in the wake of what is implied. Lefty is a nice guy, who in his absence is sorely missed. This interesting story is told in an entertaining way that allows the 2hrs 27mins running time to go by in the blink of an eye. I rate this film a solid 7 out of 10.


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