Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 27, 2018)
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 tons of James Bond films and that series still gets folks in theater seats.
A factually based entry from 1997, Donnie Brasco seems similar on the surface but it offers 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 semi-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 Brasco 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 usual 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 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 seems versatile and solid in the role.
The movie backs the two stars 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 don’t live 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 love Donnie Brasco, but it provides an interesting and unusual look at a much-filmed subject: the Mafia. The film succeeds mainly due to some strong acting and a compelling story. Brasco becomes a worthy addition to the genre.
Note that this version of Donnie Brasco offers an extended cut of the film. It adds 20 minutes of footage to elongate the flick to nearly two and a half hours. Five of these already appeared as the 2000 “Special Edition” DVD’s deleted scenes:
-Lefty and the guys deal with his new lion;
-In Florida, Lefty busts Sonny Black’s balls, and then Sonny tries to lure Donnie into his web;
-The gang runs into Sonny Red after they come back from Florida;
-The IRS audits Pistone’s family;
-Donnie smashes up a room due to stress.
In addition, the Extended Edition gives us these clips:
-More of the opening car argument between Lefty and dshjdhsad, and Sonny Red fools around with a waitress;
-More of Lefty and Donnie in the car to get Lefty’s money for his fake diamond ring;
-Donnie at home for Christmas;
-The guys discuss Nixon and the state of the world;
-More of Lefty and Donnie in the car after he proposes the Florida deal to Sonny Black;
-More of Lefty and Donnie as they scope the Florida bar;
-Lefty and Donnie threaten each other in a cold motel room;
-A little more when Donnie gets other agents to find him a boat;
-More of Lefty and Donnie in the hospital after Lefty’s kid ODs.
I think that sums up all of the extra material. I may have missed something, but I tried to compare the two versions as closely as possible, and I didn’t notice any other changes.
The big question: does this extra 20 minutes of footage make Brasco a better film? The big answer: no, not in my opinion.
Many of the elements seem interesting, but I can’t say that any of them offer anything particularly consequential. Usually they’re too short to do much, and some come across as redundant. We can already sense the tensions as Donnie rises in stature while Lefty stays the same, so we don’t need these spelled out to such a degree.
Nonetheless, I can’t say that the additions actually hurt the movie. They get a little repetitive, but they’re not harmful in that regard. Both cuts of the film work well. I’d probably prefer the theatrical cut, as it’s tighter and brisker, but this extended edition gives us an interesting alternate view of the flick.