Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Al Pacino, Johnny
Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche
Director: Mike Newell
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Sony Home Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 147 Minutes
Release Date: May 8, 2007
“When they send for you, you go in alive, you come out dead, and it's your best friend that does it.”
Donnie Brasco is one of the best and most gripping movies about the mafia since GoodFellas and Casino, and being that it is based on a true story, like the two films just mentioned, helps it a great deal in achieving excellence. It is the account of FBI agent Joe Pistone, played to true perfection by Johnny Depp. Pistone went through a 6-year undercover case under the alias “Donnie Brasco”.
Luckily, Pistone lived to tell his insightful and frightful ordeal in the book he wrote in 1978, titled “Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia”, which was then translated to the silver screen in 1997, through the winning talent of Quiz Show screenwriter Paul Attanasio. There have been lots of movies involving agents in undercover work, but Donnie Brasco takes the viewer further down the undercover territory, as we are guided through Joe’s 6-year investigation.
One day in a coffee shop, Donnie, known as a professional jewel dealer, is confronted by high profile gangster Lefty (Al Pacino), who wants Donnie’s opinion on a diamond he has just bought. Donnie tells Lefty the diamond is a fake, and the two then go to the dealer to sort the situation out. Lefty sees Donnie as stand-up guy, and very useful for the crew that Lefty works under.
It results in plunging Donnie, or Joe, further down into the mafia underworld than he ever expected. Lefty soon vouches for Donnie, meaning that Lefty is also risking his life just by trusting him to work for his crew. Lefty’s boss is Sonny Black, played in a much memorable performance by Michael Madsen. Sonny is heartless, very relentless, and crazy when pushed to the edge. Sonny is also serious about the business he runs, since one of his responsibilities is a monthly payment of $50,000 to the higher authorities.
It’s simply stunning to see a veteran masterful actor like Pacino collaborate with a young talented one like Depp. They both fill the shoes of their characters to sheer perfection. At the core of the story, amidst all the graphic violence of the mafia, and the on goings with the FBI, is the relationship between two men who need each other in a strange sort of way.
Lefty has been a longtime gangster, with nearly thirty hits to his name, and not an ounce to show for it. What he sees in Donnie is someone he’s never seen before, which is a loyal, respectable friend. Lefty frequently has Donnie over to his place for numerous dinners, and the two become nearly inseparable work partners, all the while Donnie’s true identity is kept hidden from Lefty.
The movie also does a very good job of balancing Joe’s undercover work with his numerous visits to his wife and children, who don’t get to see him much. Joe’s wife is played by Anne Heche, who was just a rising star at the time. It’s a hugely pressuring situation, since Joe is gone for months at a time, and he still can’t tell his wife a single word of what he does. It eventually causes marriage problems, and the two end up seeing a counselor to work out their problems.
Those who have never seen this film might find it interesting that the director is Mike Newell, a British director whose previous film was the English comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. One might be skeptic to think if a director from England would be able to capture the essence of life in the mob, but Newell does one spectacular directorial job here. As I mentioned, Donnie Brasco is the best mob epic to come from Hollywood since GoodFellas and Casino, which were both made by the great Martin Scorsese, whose knowledge of the mob came from the area, which he lived. And since this is essentially an adaptation of a book of events, Newell doesn’t really need any knowledge of the mafia, he only needs to apply a vision, which does very superbly. The real Joe Pistone, who is still to this day the target of a $500,000 contract, took a risky chance in choosing to be a technical advisor for the movie.
Donnie Brasco is filled to the brim with spectacular and edgy performances from one end to the next. For Al Pacino, a movie about life in the mob might not be anything new, but he presents some true original qualities in the character of Lefty. As for Johnny Depp, this film is his ultimate tour de force. It was the first time I had seen Depp grow into a true actor, and a masterful one at that. We buy him as Donnie right from scene one, and immediately believe him as a man truly in over his head, and stressed out as a result from it. This performance led to the actor’s other triumphant work in the films Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Sleepy Hollow. Michael Madsen provides a wonderful sinister presence here, much like he did in Reservoir Dogs, where he played an equally crazed hit man. Donnie Brasco is brilliant standout in the mafia movie genre, as well as one the best films of 1997.
A quite splendid anamorphic presentation from Sony that is something of an improvement of the past DVD versions. The picture is more clear and crisp this time around and colors are marvelous. The 70s setting feels way more authentic in this presentation. Both day and night sequences are equally terrific.
The 5.1 mix is strong in many areas. The film is mostly dialogue driven, but there are instances of intense violence that play off with quite an impact, and disco and rock tracks from the 70s on the soundtrack are heard in excellent playback. Terrific job!
Essentially the same extras on the previous Special Edition release are included with the exception of the commentary from director Mike Newell. The new extended cuts always seem to do away with the commentaries. Included on this disc is the documentary “Donnie Brasco: Out of the Shadows”, as well as an Original Behind the Scenes Featurette, a photo gallery and trailers.
Donnie Brasco remains a career highpoint for both Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, as well as one of the more distinctive films dealing with the mafia. This new Extended Cut is a perfect opportunity to discover or re-discover this terrific film!