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Donnie Brasco

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Donnie Brasco

Starring: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp
Director: Mike Newell
Rated: R
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: February 1997
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Garry Pastore, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche

Review by Andrew Hicks
3 stars out of 4

More than 20 years ago, Al Pacino gained his fame by starring in the first two GODFATHER films. Now he's returned to those roots by playing a thoroughly exhausted, much less successful Mafia man. Donnie BRASCO, though, follows in the feet of Pacino's 1996 role in CITY HALL by giving the lead to a younger, less experienced man in the field. In CITY HALL it was John Cusack; here, it's Johnny Depp, who works his way into Pacino's existence by telling Pacino the $8,000 diamond ring he just bought is a fake.

Depp slowly earns Pacino's confidence as we learn he's really an undercover FBI agent out to break up the Mafia ring. It would seem contrived if they didn't tell us at the beginning that it's based on a true story. From here, the movie can only go in three directions -- either Depp sticks to his mission and all works out, the mobsters find out he's an FBI agent and some other agent has to come in and rescue him, or Depp gets Patti Hearst syndrome and begins to fraternize with the enemy for real.

We get a mixture of options one and three. Depp starts to use the f-word more than usual and say "Forget about it!" in different tones to mean different things. One subplot focuses on this transformation as it relates to Depp and his family. His wife is sick of never seeing him or knowing what assignment he's working on and has several non-productive fights with him. This plotline falls by the wayside toward the last reel, though.

The main appeal of the film are the Mafia men themselves. Pacino is great as a tired, washed-up gangster who's been in the business 30 years and still hasn't gotten anywhere. Bruno Kirby and Michael Madsen, as the leader, aren't given much to do here, but exemplify the fact that this crime ring is pretty small time. These underachievers are so unlucky at their game that, when they finally get a successful gambling party going, I was actually upset that the cops broke it up.

Because the criminals evoke this strange kind of sympathy, there are no real antagonists in DONNIE BRASCO, only conflicts. Depp grows attached to Pacino and realizes that if the other guys find out he's an FBI man, Pacino will get whacked before he can say "Forget about it!" At the same time, Depp is torn between his job and his wife and, on the same token, his job and his attachment to the Mafia game. None of these are resolved in a cinematic way, probably because nothing ever is in real life. We never have soundtracks in our heads either.

Copyright 1997 Andrew Hicks

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