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Mike Newell
Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche, Zeljko Ivanek, Gerry Becker, Robert Miano, Brian Tarantina
Writing Credits:
Joseph D. Pistone & Richard Woodley (book, "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia"), Paul Attanasio

In 1978, the US government waged a war against organized crime. One man was left behind the lines.

Posing as jewel broker Donnie Brasco, FBI agent Joe Pistone is granted entrance into the violent mob family of aging hitman Lefty Ruggiero. When his personal and professional life collide, Pistone jeopardizes his marriage, his job, his life and ultimately the gangster mentor he has come to respect and admire. Based on a true story.

Box Office:
$35 million.
Opening Weekend
$11.660 million on 1503 screens.
Domestic Gross
$41.954 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 2.35:1/16X9
English Dolby Digital 5.0
French Dolby Surround 2.0
Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 127 min.
Price: $14.94
Release Date: 11/7/2000

• Audio Commentary with Director Mike Newell
• Isolated Score
• “Out from the Shadows” Featurette
• Original Vintage Featurette
• Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
• Photo Gallery
• Talent Files
• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Donnie Brasco: Special Edition (1997)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 12, 2007)

From The Godfather through The Sopranos, the public remains fascinated by tales of the Mafia. Since so many of these share the same essential elements, it seems a little surprising at times that the genre retains such sparkle, but then again, they've made 20 James Bond films and the series still gets folks in theater seats.

A factually based entry from 1997, Donnie Brasco seemed similar on the surface but it offered a somewhat different look at "the life". The story follows Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), an FBI agent who poses as jewel broker Donnie Brasco in an attempt to gain intimacy with local Mafia. After he gains the trust of fairly unsuccessful low-level gangster Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), Pistone accomplishes his goals, but almost inevitably, he gets too close to the action and a variety of conflicts arise in regard to his position.

A lot of the story seems fairly predictable and not exceptionally exciting. The plot occasionally focuses on Pistone's neglected family - he spent years undercover and had little contact with them in that time - but as is almost always the case with this kind of "man's movie", we don't see much of wife Maggie (Anne Heche) and their kids. They become a minor subplot that doesn't receive a lot of attention.

Instead, the film concentrates on Donnie's relationship with his new compatriots, and it's through those elements that DB gains its power. Although the story itself doesn't do much to flesh out these connections, the actors make the developments compelling. Thankfully, Pacino almost totally buries his usually outsize bluster as Lefty. This guy's a not-too-bright loser who can't ever get ahead, and Pacino plays him with sweetly sad resignation and simmering fury. I wasn't sure someone of Pacino's stature could lower himself to the level of such a pathetic character - all those years of stardom and power must have had an effect - but Al does quite well in the part. He makes Lefty a very believable and real person.

Depp works just as well as the conflicted agent. He ably portrays the dilemmas faced by the character, and he also slowly develops the way Pistone disappears and becomes Brasco. Depp doesn't offer a quick and rough imitation of a wiseguy. He gradually transforms to the point where little of Pistone exists, even when he's out of that situation and home with his family. Depp is quite versatile and solid.

The two stars are backed with a more-than-competent supporting cast, led by always-scary Michael Madsen and comic yet still realistic Bruno Kirby. This group doesn't quite match up with the stellar cast of GoodFellas, but they do well nonetheless.

Truth be told, Brasco occasionally feels like GoodFellas-lite. The stories move along somewhat similar lines, and a lot of the situations looked much the same. The main difference - and one of the more interesting aspects of Brasco - stems from the fact it concentrates on a pretty unsuccessful side of the mob. These guys aren't living the high life, unlike the Mafia characters we usually see. Instead, they slink along from one low-level caper to the next while they continue to dream of the big score that seems to evade them. It's an unusual perspective that adds power to the film.

As does the true-to-life basis of the movie. Although Brasco takes liberties with the facts, it's still a strong subtext to know that the story really happened. It's hard not to marvel at the devotion of Pistone and all the work he puts in to his undercover job, and the knowledge that a real guy actually did what we see makes it seem even more amazing.

Ultimately, I can't say that I loved Donnie Brasco, but I thought it provided an interesting and unusual look at a much-filmed subject: the Mafia. The film succeeds mainly due to some very strong acting and a compelling story. Brasco is a worthy addition to the genre.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio B/ Bonus B

Donnie Brasco appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie presented some problems but it generally looked good.

Sharpness usually came across as crisp and detailed. Most of the movie offered a picture that was accurate and lacked softness, though some of the wider shots appeared a little fuzzy. I noticed no jags or moiré effects, but I saw light edge enhancement at times. In regard to print flaws, grain could be heavy. I also detected some grit, specks and nicks, but defects weren’t major.

Except for the Florida segments, Donnie Brasco used a pretty restricted palette. As befit the lives of low-level gangsters, we witnessed lots of browns and blacks in the film. What colors we saw - usually neon reds and oranges - looked fairly accurate and well-reproduced, and when the palette became broader in Florida, the variety of hues came across acceptably well. Some of the colors could be a bit muddy; these weren’t severe concerns, but they occurred. Black levels occasionally appeared a little flat and drab, but they were usually solid and deep, and shadow detail seemed appropriately heavy without excessive darkness. Ultimately, Brasco provided a decent picture.

The film featured a decent but generally unspectacular Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack. The soundfield for Brasco seemed heavily oriented toward the front channels. Those speakers displayed audio that spread nicely across the forward spectrum and blended well; the front channels appeared lively and active. The surrounds were much less involving, however. I detected adequate use of music from the rear, and occasionally some effects cropped up back there as well; I heard light ambiance and also some loud reinforcement of a few gunshots. However, the track stayed strongly to the front, and the surrounds appeared to be junior partners in the mix.

Audio quality seemed generally solid. At times the dialogue came across as a bit artificial, but speech usually sounded distinct and crisp, with no problems related to intelligibility. Effects were clear and accurate, and on occasion they seemed quite powerful; for example, whenever we heard gunshots, they appeared appropriately loud and accurate and they showed no signs of distortion. The effects offered decent bass response, but the best examples of low-end came from the music, especially when we heard pop songs from the era; as a whole, the score appeared clean and bright, and it provided pretty good dynamic range. The whole package worked well enough to merit a "B".

This special edition of Brasco includes a mix of extras. First up is a running, screen-specific audio commentary from director Mike Newell. The director proves to be a fairly chatty subject, though he starts to run out of material toward the end of the film.

Although Newell offers some good information about the production - especially related to how the main actors got into their roles – he generally just reflects upon the on-screen action. Newell gives us some decent insight at times, but for the most part he just likes to tell us what's happening; at times I wondered if he understood that most listeners already saw the movie. Newell's engaging enough to make the commentary worth a listen, but it needed more solid information; for one, I wish he'd incorporated more details about the true story behind the film.

Speaking of audio tracks, Brasco also includes Patrick Doyle's music all on its own. This isolated score appears in Dolby Digital 5.0 sound. Although I don't often care about movie scores, I always appreciate the inclusion of isolated tracks on DVDs.

Next we get a documentary about the movie. Called Donnie Brasco: Out From the Shadows, this 23-minute and 50-second program combines recent interviews with Newell, writer Paul Attanasio, producer Louis DiGiaimo, and the real-life Joe Pistone with 1997 snippets from Depp and a mix of film clips and shots from the set. While much of the information is good, the program becomes especially compelling due to the details from Pistone; his remarks give us the factual information I wanted to hear during Newell's commentary. All in all, it's a very solid little documentary.

Deleted Scenes presents five excised clips. These each last between 15 seconds and two minutes and 27 seconds for a total of five and a half minutes of snipped segments plus a 40 second introduction from Newell. We find “Lefty’s New Lion” (1:21), “The Same Shirt” (2:27), “Bigger Bottle” (1:05), “IRS Audit” (0:34) and “Under Pressure” (0:20). The clips themselves are interesting but nothing special, and although he wishes he'd retained some of them, Newell uses his optional commentary to describe why they were removed.

We also find the film's Original Featurette. This program runs for seven minutes and 20 seconds and follows the usual format for this sort of piece: we get a mix of film clips, interview snippets with Newell, Depp, Heche, Bruno Kirby, Michael Madsen, and Pistone, and some shots from the set. Although it clearly offers a promotional view of the movie, it's a decent little program that provides a modest amount of interesting material. It's mostly valuable due to the inclusion of the actors' interviews; these aren't great clips, but since we hear so little of that side of things in the new featurette, the snippets add to the value of this minor but watchable piece.

Brasco includes a Photo Gallery that runs as a regular video program. Various shots are filmed and shown onscreen as audio from the film and from the set plays alongside them. This piece lasts for three minutes and it offers a nice way to show these pictures.

The Talent Files feature the same very basic biographies found on other CTS DVDs. We get listings for Newell, Pacino, Depp, Kirby, Heche, and Madsen; these provide a few bits of rudimentary career information but aren't worth much. We also find the theatrical trailer for Brasco plus ads for other CTS films: The Devil's Own. The Professional, and The Juror. Finally, the booklet includes the usual brief but fairly interesting production notes.

Donnie Brasco won't go down as one of the great Mafia-oriented films. That's a crowded field and it simply lacks the consistent power to qualify it for such honors. However, it's a consistently solid and interesting movie that concentrates on a side of "the life" rarely seen in such programs. The DVD provides good though unexceptional picture and sound plus some nice extras. Fans of the genre should take a look at this Special Edition release of Donnie Brasco.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4594 Stars Number of Votes: 37
3 3:
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main