Appellate Judge Dave Ryan always keeps his beaners on the outside.
"This is Donnie. He's a friend of mine."
Donnie Brasco is the partially-fictionalized story of Joe Pistone, an FBI agent who went undercover and, as Donnie Brasco, a jewel thief from Florida, infiltrated New York's Bonanno crime family. By the time Pistone was "pulled out" of his undercover life, he was about to become a "made man" in the Mob. Needless to say, he had some stories to tell, which he told in a 1987 book. Ten years later, the book turned into a film, starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Ten more years later, Donnie Brasco makes the leap to high definition. Is it worth checking out a decade later? Fugghetaboutit.
Facts of the Case
Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp, 21 Jump Street) is a small-time jewel fence in New York. He catches the eye of an aging Mob enforcer named Lefty (Al Pacino, The Godfather), who eventually takes him under his wing. What Lefty doesn't know is that Brasco is actually Joe Pistone, an FBI agent with a wife (Anne Heche) and kids out in Jersey.
Pistone's job is to infiltrate the Mafia as deeply as he can, a task both challenging and dangerous. He manages to get into the good graces of Lefty's capo, Sonny Black (Michael Madsen, Reservoir Dogs), much to the chagrin of Lefty, who's jealous. As a mob war begins to break out, the hoods begin to rely more and more on Donnie, unaware that he's working against them. Or is he? Has Donnie "gone native," and has he become more like the mobsters than he'd like to be? And will he make it out alive?
Donnie Brasco is a superlative film—it is the obvious inspiration for The Sopranos (and is the spiritual kin of Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire as well), and a paradigm for subsequent Mafia-themed films. Ten years later, it's hard to find anything to say about it that hasn't already been said. Director Mike Newell—fresh off of Four Weddings and a Funeral—does an outstanding job from both a pacing and a cinematographic standpoint. The film grabs you from the get-go and keeps you fascinated—and wondering. This isn't the glammed-up world of the Corleones; this is real, and gritty, and dangerous, and maybe just a bit pathetic. The film's characters aren't iconic symbols of Good and Bad, nor are they presented as "cool." They're all deeply flawed, even our hero Pistone. It has more of an edge than Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas—another fine film—that makes it just that much more realistic.
The three main leads in this film are equally outstanding. Donnie Brasco was a bookend of sorts for Al Pacino. After making his name as the impeccably strategic uber-Don Michael Corleone, it's fascinating to see Pacino playing the other end of the spectrum here. Lefty is the Willy Loman of the mob. He did his job dutifully over the years and never got anything in return. It was always someone else who got the promotion, or the power, or the money. All he can expect is an eventual bullet in the head whenever someone decides he's too dangerous or inconvenient to keep around. Pacino plays Lefty absolutely perfectly, too. I've said elsewhere that Pacino today tends to play caricatures of himself, not the character in the script, but every so often he reminds us how utterly brilliant he can be on screen. This is one of those films. Shockingly (at least at the time), Johnny Depp keeps right up with him. In 1997, Depp was still seen by most as the feather-haired pretty boy from 21 Jump Street, even though he had legitimately solid screen credits to his name (thanks mainly to his work with Tim Burton). Here, his prodigious skills are on full display, to the point where you forget how good looking he is, and just see the undercover cop. In the years since, Depp has proven that he's an elite actor; far more than just a pretty face. If the Burton films were the birth of Johnny Depp the Great Actor, Donnie Brasco was his coming-out party.
But the actor to whom I need to give special mention is Michael Madsen. If you've ever seen him interviewed, you know Madsen is an…interesting guy. As an actor, though, he's almost completely one-dimensional. He really can only play one role—tough-guy mobster. But he plays that role so well that he's essentially made himself the best tough-guy mobster in film history. You see other guys, and you see actors playing roles. You see Madsen…and you see something very real, and very frightening. I'm not saying Madsen is a sociopath or anything (he's not even Italian, for that matter)—he's just that good at that one role. It's almost laughable to picture him as a romantic lead now (despite his good looks and charm), because he's inhabited this one, particular role so often and so well. When he's on his full game, as in this film, he is utterly genuine and believable in a way few actors are. Sonny Black isn't a Godfather-style mobster—he's really middle management. And he's not really that great at his job. Madsen plays Sonny as if he's powered solely by his own confidence—he doesn't have skills or acumen, he's just got his rank and his belief that he's in charge for a reason. If you can imagine Bud from Kill Bill before he became jaded and fatalistic, you've got Sonny.
This Blu-ray disc contains the "extended cut" of Donnie Brasco, featuring additional footage that was not in the theatrical release. (The same cut was released earlier on a standard definition DVD.) Unfortunately, nothing on the disc tells you what, exactly, was added to make this cut. Therefore, I can't comment on whether the additions substantively help or hinder the film. All I can say is this: I loved the film in the theater, and I loved this film, so I don't think they hurt the film. Picture quality is the usual impeccable Blu-ray high definition spectacle, framed in the original theatrical 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Even though this isn't a cinematographically aggressive feature, the photography does have its subtleties, which the Blu-ray format brings out well. Audio, presented in both PCM Uncompressed and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes, is clear and rich, but largely front and center.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a paucity of extras on this release. The "new" featurette (which was actually "new" to the SD release, not here) does add quite a bit to the film simply by letting Joe Pistone (now free of the contract the Mob put on him) tell his story in his own words. He gives us some facts about the real people involved in his case, and how certain players were combined to create characters in the film. But that's it. There's no commentary, no documentary feature detailing the real-life Mob war that Pistone was involved in, no nothing. It's disappointing whenever a film of this quality doesn't come loaded with extras, but it's especially disappointing when a true story like this doesn't come with extras—because there are so many extras that naturally follow from true stories.
Donnie Brasco is a fantastic film—but if you're a film buff, you probably know that already, and have the film in your collection. If you don't own it, though, there's no reason not to grab this Blu-ray version. You won't be sorry.
Not guilty—except for all the felonies.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "Donnie Brasco: Out From the Shadows"
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