Sony // 1997 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // November 6th, 2000
Forget about it.
Donnie Brasco is based on the true-life story of FBI agent Joe Pistone, who went undercover as a member of the New York mob for six years. With absolutely stellar performances by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, this gritty tale of the low level grunts of the Mafia has a true to life feel and intellect. It is also a tale of friendship and changing morays as the undercover man becomes more and more like the people he is trying to convict. This special film deserves its own place in the annals of mob movies such as Goodfellas and has now been given a special edition on DVD; replacing the lesser version released almost two years ago.
Donnie Brasco is the cover name of an undercover agent who has spent a great deal of time developing his cover as a jewel thief and middleman. His efforts finally pay off when Lefty (Al Pacino) takes him under his wing and starts giving him an education on what being a "made guy" entails. Eventually he is taken into the crew of Sonny Black (Michael Madsen, Reservoir Dogs), a group of low level Brooklyn thugs who compete with and envy the more affluent (and better dressed) downtown crew of Sonny Red. Donnie goes deeper and deeper into the machinations of the mob and becomes friends with Lefty, a small time hood who has never quite gotten the respect of his peers. The longer he spends with the mob, the more like them he becomes, and the harder it becomes to change back to his normal self with his wife Maggie (Anne Heche). As both family and the Bureau become concerned about his mental state, Pistone struggles with his obligations to Lefty, who would be killed for vouching for him, and for himself, since every day he risks his own life were he to be discovered.
I consider Donnie Brasco to be one of the pre-eminent mob films ever made. Johnny Depp is superb in his role as Brasco/Pistone, and his spiral from the calculating agent to mobster is completely believable. This is one of his finest roles ever. Al Pacino is a natural for roles like this; yet brings new nuances to his characters in each picture. His performance is first rate and even modest, as he doesn't get to play the big boss with charisma and malice. Instead his character is something of a strutting cock who puffs himself up to keep up appearances but is a grubby moocher with a kind heart toward the young man he's taken under his wing. The same man who can shoot a friend in the head cries when his son goes into the hospital; making for a multidimensional character who is even likable. Keeping that balance is only possible because of the depth and intelligence of the script, and the fine direction by British director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral).
Instead of the sharp dressed mobsters with power and assurance the characters here are more down to earth. Standing outside in the bitter cold these gangsters stomp their feet and await the appearance of the bosses. When one comes by you can see the look in their eyes; seemingly they are looking at a movie star or other object of hero worship. Each of them work on their own little scams to contribute to the money that their skipper has to pay the man above him. Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, and James Russo each did a fine job of showing the less glamorous side of being a made man, and made evident the dichotomy of these relationships. Each are friends and kid around with each other, yet they are also ready to kill one another at any moment. Unlike other films in this genre, being a mobster doesn't look like a fun job anymore.
This isn't what I would call a "fun" film. But it is a fine one. The depth of characters go beyond most entries in the genre, and the Oscar nominated script is exceedingly real and gripping. Al Pacino and Johnny Depp are superb in their performances, and the film is expertly directed. This was definitely a film worthy of a second look by Columbia TriStar, who has been re-releasing films regularly now that the technology has improved.
The original DVD that came out a couple years ago had a fine anamorphic transfer, with a pan and scan version on the other side and only a trailer for extras. Gone is the pan and scan version and now room has been made for quality extras including a directors commentary track, deleted scenes, and featurettes. The anamorphic transfer is the same as on the original, but that isn't an insult. Certainly there are better transfers coming out now, but it looks quite good. Some grain comes through from the original source print, but few nicks or other blemishes. Some minimal edge enhancement is visible, but the picture doesn't suffer much if at all. The dimly lit scenes or the muted palette under the gray skies of New York look great, with no loss of shadow detail and accurate renditions of color. When the locations shift to Florida the excellent color representation becomes more evident; with bright blues in the sky and water offsetting the grim tone in New York. Colors are vibrant and well saturated, and the picture quality looks even better. While I would have preferred a new hi-def master, this is still one of the better transfers done in the early days of the format.
For some reason the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack from the original disc is now listed as 5.0. Whether this is the same soundtrack or a new one I can't tell, since I couldn't detect any real loss in bass response. The film is largely dialogue driven, but the gunfire and thumping bass from the musical score that includes late 1970s hits from Blondie, The Trammps, and plenty of disco hits give your subwoofer plenty to do. The soundtrack is largely front oriented, with dialogue firmly anchored in the center, but the split surrounds do get some use with ambient sound and directional pans. Nothing astounding, but this isn't a film that lends itself to an aggressive mix.
It is in the extras department that this disc truly improves upon the original release. The biggest feature is the commentary track from director Mike Newell. He is extremely proud of the picture and the actors, and gives plenty of praise for them as he fits in screen specific information. He also explains where things were changed from the original book by the real Joe Pistone. My only complaint is that he sometimes began telling us what was happening on screen; what I call "tell us what's on the screen disease." Still, it was worth a listen.
Another audio track is the isolated musical score from Patrick Doyle, which is very nice when the songs are playing without other sound effects or dialogue. Like most of these tracks, it suffers from silence whenever the score isn't playing. Five deleted scenes come next; offered with or without commentary from Mike Newell. These scenes are shown in full frame and only one or two might have had any place in the finished film. Those were largely cut for time.
Two featurettes are also included; one made at the time of the shooting and the other much later. "Donnie Brasco: Out of the Shadows" is a 21 minute featurette, which is fairly typical interview footage cut with scenes from the film. Despite the fact that the real Joe Pistone still reportedly has a $500,000 bounty on his head he made himself available for interviews, without even having his face blurred, such as he did in the original feature, which is a 6 minute little piece done to promote the film. The newer feature is by far the preferable one. A photo gallery that moves along with portions of the musical score is next, which lasts about 3 minutes. Fairly standard talent files, and four trailers, along with production notes on the insert complete the package. A nice collection of extra features, which make this disc far preferable to the original.
I have little to complain about. Perhaps the picture quality could have been improved a bit by making a new hi-def master and a new anamorphic transfer. Considering the quality of the original I'm not really complaining.
If you already own the original release of the disc, the only reason to replace it would be the extra content. Certainly it is worth seeing and would be worth at least a rental. If you don't own the original disc, then buy this one; the quality of the film and the disc makes this an excellent choice for an addition to your movie collection.
Columbia TriStar has my unmitigated support for their efforts to re-release films on DVD that they offered in the early days of the format. In most cases now I'd prefer the right edition just be made first, but the large strides made in authoring and technical capabilities offer a chance to greatly improve upon the first discs we were offered. The film is easily acquitted as I consider it one of the finest films in the organized crime genre.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track
* Deleted Scenes
* Isolated Musical Score
* Talent Files
* Production Notes
* Photo Gallery