Judge Daniel MacDonald says, "This film's no fugasi—fuggetaboutit."
"In our thing, you get sent for, you go in alive and come out dead, and it's your best friend that does it."—Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino)
This extended cut finds Donnie Brasco, a well-regarded gangster picture from 1997, making its third appearance on DVD, now with an extra twenty minutes and remastered picture and sound. Does the additional footage make for a better movie, or just a longer one?
Facts of the Case
In 1978, undercover agent Joseph "Joe" Pistone (Johnny Depp, Blow), under the assumed name "Donnie Brasco," managed to infiltrate a New York mafia family through made guy Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino, The Insider). But the deeper he gets into his undercover life, the harder it is on his real family, threatening his marriage and relationship with his three young daughters. Added to the pressures from his family and his superiors is his growing fondness for Lefty, a vulnerable career gangster who is starting to think of Donnie like a son.
Joe is very good at what he does, quickly earning the respect of Sonny Black (Michael Madsen, Reservoir Dogs) and his crew, developing vital intelligence for the FBI operation despite the lack of appreciation shown by his superiors. But as events escalate, Joe realizes that once he comes out of the undercover operation, Lefty will be facing execution for unwittingly backing an undercover FBI agent, forming an unanticipated and complex moral dilemma for the young agent.
Donnie Brasco is a fine amalgam of gangster film, police procedural, and love story—the latter between Lefty and Joe. It manages to cover some similar territory as landmark pictures like Goodfellas, but absolutely stands on its own by exploring the mafia from both sides of the law, wrenching suspense from Joe's struggle to remember who he is.
The movie takes place in an extremely violent world, but rarely depicts that violence, recognizing the audience's familiarity with the genre's conventions thanks to The Godfather series and other mafia classics. But when violence is on screen, it's ugly, brutal, and unflinching, never glamorized or appealing. We're put in Joe's shoes, facing carnage as an inevitable necessity that he will nevertheless try to avoid as much as possible. A scene in a Japanese restaurant where he must participate in the awful beating of a host to maintain his undercover identity and protect his own status finds him, and us, questioning where the line really is between good guy and bad guy. The tasteful moderation of violence is one of the picture's strengths, respecting the moviegoing audience's intelligence and avoiding the glamorization of a criminal lifestyle.
Not that there aren't times when being a member of this mafia family isn't appealing. On the contrary, these guys know how to live it up with the best of them, getting the prime tables at restaurants, never paying for their own drinks, and driving around in Cadillacs. But on the flip side, an awful lot of hard work on scams unlikely to yield much of a payoff, like boosting a truck full of razor blades or breaking into parking meters, is how these "made guys" spend much of their time. This blend of power and absurdity seems a likely influence on the popular HBO show The Sopranos, and sets this picture apart from much of its genre kin.
The casting of Al Pacino as Lefty is brilliant, playing on his authoritative persona to keep us off guard about just who he is, and how dangerous or docile he might be. When we, and Pistone, first meet Lefty, it's through overhearing a heated debate about cars in which Lefty is holding court at a table of men, seemingly a charming, respected and controlled leader. As the picture goes on, we begin to see more and more that Lefty is more or less a has-been, so deep in debt that he'll never pay it off, and so set in his ways that he'll never move up through the organization. We learn this more through witnessing discrepancies between what Lefty says and what ends up happening than through changes in the character, with the man earning our empathy as he earns Joe's. Pacino's acting is nearly always pitch-perfect, but this is one of his most unexpectedly nuanced performances and one of my favorites of his roles. The rest of the cast, including the always-interesting Depp, holds up well, although I have a bit of trouble buying Bruno Kirby (City Slickers) as a wiseguy.
British director Mike Newell (Pushing Tin) chose this as his first Hollywood movie, having made an impact with the wildly successful Four Weddings and a Funeral. His straightforward, classic style works well with this material, and again prevents it from becoming an attempted clone of Goodfellas by avoiding flashy camera moves. The screenplay, written by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) and based on the book by the real Joseph Pistone, is all about language, using a unique lexicon that feels authentic and intimate, regardless of whether terms like "fugasi" actually exist in the underworld. Scenes are talky but the exposition is subtle, and each character has a distinctive voice, especially Donnie, Lefty, and Sonny Black, played with understated menace by Michael Madsen.
This Donnie Brasco: Extended Cut features some twenty extra minutes over the 1997 theatrical version, bringing the picture up to nearly two-and-a-half hours, but the pace surprisingly doesn't suffer. Most of the additional footage is simply additional bits of dialogue added to previously included scenes, such a longer conversation when we first meet Lefty and a cameo by Gretchen Mol (Rounders), a few added lines that explain why Lefty has the ring that he tries to sell to Donnie, and so on. Some of the added scenes make explicit information that was hinted at before, like Lefty's lion being walked out to his car, and Donnie and Lefty entering the burger joint to purchase forty burgers to feed to it, or a montage of Pistone performing the household chores that his wife brings up in marriage counseling. Some of this material adds levity to the picture, which is probably why it was excised in the first place, but doesn't really add anything to our understanding of the story or the characters: Newell was wise to leave most of this on the cutting room floor ten years ago.
One exception is the additional exploration of Lefty's growing jealousy that he feels toward Donnie, as Donnie becomes more popular with Sonny Black. This is handled rather abruptly in the theatrical version, but here we can see Lefty's insecurities much earlier, and the gradual build up makes the pair's latter confrontations more satisfying. Also benefiting in this version, albeit slightly, is the character of Joe's wife Maggie, played by Anne Heche (Wag the Dog). A brief subplot is added to the film that finds the family receiving an audit notice, leading to a furious reaction by Joe and a strong conversation between Maggie and FBI supervisors. While a truncated version of Maggie's scene exists in the theatrical cut, this complete version serves to develop both Heche and Depp's characters, and raises the stakes in the third act. Heche was playing an essential yet thankless role in the picture and must have been pretty unhappy with this scene being removed, and it is the only addition to the extended cut that raises my suspicions of studio interference.
Much of the additional footage included here is also on the Donnie Brasco: Special Edition release as deleted scenes, but pieces of dialogue that have been restored fit the label's claim of "Never-before seen footage!"
On the technical side, both the picture and sound have been improved. For your viewing pleasure, you'll be treated to richer colors and much less edge enhancement than was present on the SE. Not a huge change, as the SE had a decent quality transfer, the differences should nevertheless be noticeable even on a smaller television. On the audio side, a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track replaces the former's 5.0 track. While the jump from 5.0 to 5.1 isn't dramatic, and the audio remains fairly limited to the front channels, the music, gunshots, and vehicles all benefit from the dedicated low-end.
As for special features, nothing new to report—all were included on the SE, and not everything that was on that release shows up here, the most notable omission being Mike Newell's audio commentary. The "Exclusive Featurette" provides a surprisingly candid look at the film's development, with interviews from most principals including the real Joseph Pistone (who acted as an advisor on the film despite a price on his head, which was later lifted after the New York families had a "sit down"). It's worth your 25 minutes, but is not comprehensive by any means, mostly covering decisions leading up to production and heaping praise on the cast. The original featurette from 1997 is also here, mostly replicating similar information in less depth. Finally is a photo slideshow playing over pieces of Great Expectations composer Patrick Doyle's score and quotes from the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only real problem with this release is the complete lack of explanation for its existence. Did Newell feel that studio meddling or the screening process compromised his vision? Has he had second thoughts about decisions made in 97? Did he have anything to do with this extended cut? Who knows, and I think that's a real mistake. An audio commentary, note from the director, or something similar would have been very much appreciated.
It's difficult to say if this is a better picture than the theatrical version, as for every scene that adds nuance to the movie's arc, there's another that duplicates information already communicated in a more subtle way; it's a worthwhile and different version of a movie that wasn't screaming out for improvement in the first place. So if you don't already own Donnie Brasco, or you have the 1998 DVD release, this is probably the one to buy purely for its picture and sound quality. If you have the SE, it'll be a tougher call unless you're a completist.
Not guilty, but leading to more than 200 arrests.
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Scales of Justice
• Donnie Brasco: Out of the Shadows
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