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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

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

Does the world need another mob movie? Do we still have the blood lust for Mafia minutia? Are there any actors left who can carry on the Godfather legacy?

DONNIE BRASCO avoids answering these questions and contents itself with being a true story. Just the facts ma'am. The mob in this movie is neither glamorous nor particularly horrifying - just a bunch of working-class stiffs out to make a living. Some of their anxieties are common ones we can identify with such as being passed over for promotion (being "upped") or working hard for the company and not being recognized. Others, such as being "whacked," certainly exceed the fear of being downsized. At least if you lose your job, in most firms death is not part of the severance package.

Director Mike Newell, whose recent work has been with such wonderful, lighthearted comedies as FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, sets a factual tone from the beginning. The script by Academy Award nominated writer Paul Attanasio (QUIZ SHOW) lacks the gimmicks and sensationalism of typical Mafia films. (The script is based on the book "Donnie Brasco: Undercover Life in the Mafia" by Joseph Pistone and Richard Woodley.) The gangsters in this film are much more human and accessible characters. They perform terrible deeds certainly, but none are awarded the mythical and heroic status most such pictures bestow on hoodlums.

Johnny Depp, perhaps the best young actor in the business, gives his usual outstanding performance as undercover agent Joe Pistone, who was known to the mob as Donnie Brasco. In 1978, after two years of undercover work, Joe breaks into the mob through his connection to wiseguy Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino). Just as actors get into character for a part and have trouble breaking out, so does Joe. Joe is transformed body and soul into a wiseguy wannabe. The tight culture and family of the Mafia draw him in so that he becomes increasing estranged from the FBI and from his wife, Maggie (Anne Heche), and his three lovely daughters. It's difficult keeping the family together if you can only see them sporadically. All of this notwithstanding, Pistone was one of the most important FBI plants ever. Hundreds of people were convicted because of his courage and tenacity.

Pacino's Lefty looks at first like a consummate professional crook. He is the cock of the walk. With Orwellian logic, he explains to Donnie that, "A wiseguy is always right - even when he is wrong."

With the power of a made man, he makes Donnie "connected," which means that Lefty is his mentor and no one will dare touch Donnie. If Donnie plays his cards right, someday he too could join the inner circle and become a wiseguy. (As you watch their antics, you realize that the moniker wiseguy has such great irony. Wise they are not. Their success comes solely from their position and the fear they induce. Lefty has trouble even breaking into a parking meter to steal the change.)

Lefty turns out to be a bitter second string player, who, although he constantly boasts of 26 kills, secretly fears he will be whacked by one of the more successful wiseguys. "Thirty years I'm busting my hump," complains Lefty. "What have I got?" He derives more pleasure in cooking than trying to figure out the next job to pull. "Who am I?" he complains. "Who am I? I'm a spoke on a wheel." Together Pacino and Depp turn in two fascinating performances with believable macho chemistry between the two of them. Lefty becomes Donnie's surrogate father, buddy, and constant companion.

The richly textured story focuses on the day-to-day life and schemes of the Mafia. The story concentrates on relationships and political intrigues rather than violence.

A well developed subplot deals with the difficulties of Donnie's home life and tells this part of the story with a realism I have not seen before. You empathize with the wife and kids, and yet Depp transfers the feeling of being trapped so that you can understand both sides. Ultimately, Donnie recognizes and resents his transformations. "I'm not becoming like them," he confesses to Maggie. "I am them."

A poignant, but funny vignette has Joe and Maggie seeking counseling to avoid divorce. Therapists lack training on dealing with the stress caused by being an undercover cop. Their inept therapist gives them lectures full of jargon that are so far off base that they border on parody.

The script is highly polished. In one beautifully written scene Donnie explains to his FBI comrades the nuances of the five subtlety different pronunciations of "Forget about it."

Director Mike Newell's skill can be seen throughout. He does not excuse the horrors of Lefty's profession, but he has a deft sense of when to back off. This can be seen in potentially the most horrific act of violence in the picture. Newell shows just enough so that the actions are clear, but he does not let his cameras linger. The resulting image possesses a humorously macabre feeling.

Joe couldn't leave his work at the office like most of us. This unglamorized view of his travails as an undercover agent is mesmerizing. If you think you have seen it all when it comes to the mob, think again. Even if you could care less about organized crime, DONNIE BRASCO is as interesting an exploration of the human spirit and failings as it is a story about crime and moral turpitude.

DONNIE BRASCO runs 2:06. It is rated R for violence, profanity, and sexuality. It would be fine for most teenagers. I highly recommend the film to you and give it *** 1/2.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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