Forget about it?
New York mobster Lefty (Al Pacino) walks into his usual diner, starts talking up a storm with some guy named “Don the Jeweler” (Johnny Depp), figures out that the ring he just bought his girlfriend was a Fugazi, takes him out to find the guy, gets his money back, and badda-bing, badda-boom, the deal is done. However, Lefty doesn’t want to just say “bye” to Don and be done with him forever – he wants him to be apart of his mob, walk him through the ranks so that one day, Donnie will be the new crime boss that everybody obeys and looks up to. Donnie has those aspirations too, but the problem is that his real name is Joseph Pistone and he’s not all that he seems to be. Rather, he’s an FBI informant that’s been working the streets for about two years now, and he’s getting more and more tied into this underground life, and leaving his other life, the one with his wife (Anne Heche) and kids, on the back-burner as if it almost doesn’t exist.
I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve seen this movie. I want to say the perfect, rounded-up amount is probably ten-and-a-half times, but I can’t be too sure because it’s probably a whole lot more than what I can remember. Hell, probably a couple of drunken-views may have happened in there as well. Either way, whatever the total amount is, doesn’t matter, because each and every time I’ve watched this flick, not only have I liked it even more, but I get to see more and more about it, especially since, as a film fanatic, my eyes have been opened a bit wider to what makes a movie work, and what doesn’t.
However, I still have yet to call this movie a “favorite” of mine, and here’s exactly why: The problem I have with this movie is that, after all of the times I’ve seen this and plenty other movies of the same nature, I’ve come to realize that the “FBI-informant” story has all been dead by now. We get it; whenever you take a regular, FBI agent, throw him into a world where he has to have that one identity and nothing else, then most likely, that dude’s going to get thrown in there too deep. It’s what we see with every undercover-cop flick, and it doesn’t make it all the better or more original. It’s just there.
But there is that one aspect to this movie that makes that problem sort of go away: The drama involved here between the characters and the situation we have on our hands here. Everybody in this flick is essentially a cliché of what it’s like to be apart of the mob. Greased, slicked-back hair? Check. A bunch of Italian, mobster slang used that makes no sense? Double check. Paying for a coffee or a drink with a wad of cash? Way too many checks. An over-the-top scene of an act of violence to prove how much you do not want to get all tangled-up in with the mob? You got it. People getting whacked? Well now, would it be a mobster movie if it didn’t at least have one or two or more scenes that include that act?
I’ll allow for that last, hypothetical question to rest in your mind.
So, with all of that said, you see where I’m going with this? If not, follow through. The aspect behind this movie that makes it work, despite all of the obvious conventions and happenings of the usual mobster movie, is that there’s actual, real-life emotion involved with this story and the characters that inhabit it. Rather than making Joe, or “Donnie”, the type of FBI informant that’s way too in over his head, is a bit of a bastard for throwing his family to the side and focusing a little bit too much attention on the task at hand, the movie shows him off as being a troubled-soul, yet, one that knows what mission he has to complete, and to do it by any means necessary. Sure, he has to get his hands dirty a couple of times and may even have to pull off some risky moves of his own, but he knows that he has to get the job done and the movie paints him more as a regular-guy, who just so happened to stick to his guns, in more ways than one. I don’t want to call him a “hero” per se, but I do want to call him an inspiration to most people who feel like they can’t go through something because the shit’s too deep or too dangerous. And I’m not just talking about FBI informants – I’m talking about anybody, dammit!
Then, something strange with this movie begins to happen: You start to feel a bit wrapped-up in this world just as much as Joe does. Once Joe realizes that not all of these mobster-figures are as bad or as dastardly as they may seem from the outside, he begins to wonder whether or not he should fully go through with it, and if he does decide to actually say, “Yeah, arrest all their asses”, he still wonders whether or not it’s the right thing to do or if he should leave a couple people out of it. It’s a problem for us, almost as much as it is a problem for Joe, and it gets you more and more involved with the material, regardless of if you know how it all turns out. Obviously no major Hollywood production is going to fund a movie where the real-life protagonist gets killed, but you still feel like any chance the dude has to lose his cover, he will, and become a victim of it so.
Very smart writing and directing on both sides of the camera, but in front of it all is the two stars we have on our hands here, none other than Johnny Depp and Al Pacino themselves. This was the first movie where I think Johnny Depp really broke-out of his shell, showed us that he could actually “act”, and, despite what his good looks may have you believe, make it seem like he’s a real person, with real problems, marital ones and whatnot. Depp’s character may go through the usual trip of where he gets in way too deep and can barely get out without keeping his hands clean, but it’s Depp himself who keeps his head above the water, allowing us to believe in him no matter how scary certain situations may get for him. There’s a real sense of likability and regularity to Depp here, that I wish he would just go back to, at least one more time. That is, before he gets back together with Gore Verbinski and starts acting all nutty and cuckoo again. Why Johnny?!?! Why not come back to the real world?!?!
As great as Johnny is here, though, he’s definitely not the one who walks away with the flick. Leave that recognition to Al Pacino, playing, yet again, another mob boss that has a bit of anger-issues and problems on the inside, but keeps them more bottled-in than what we’re used to seeing with this type of character, or even the way Pacino usually plays them. What’s so great about Pacino playing Lefty is that, we get that this guy is not perfect and definitely has some control issues that get in the way of his better-judgement at times, but we still feel like he’s a good guy, underneath the phis-age and all. In fact, we know it, it just rarely comes out in the most obvious, hackneyed way you’d expect from a movie such as this. Pacino yells and hollers at times, but he keeps it surprisingly subdued and quiet as well, and that’s probably some of the best parts of this movie. Actually, mainly the ones with Depp and Pacino together, because you can tell that they form a bond that’s like a father-son combo, but also one that feels like it could be best friends as well. It’s sad to see them together, but you can’t help but feel something for them both, especially Lefty, who feels like an old man who will just never, ever get it right in the world that he lives in. Poor guy.
Same can sort of be said for the rest of the rag-tag mobsters that these two hang with. Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, and James Russo all play members of their mob and all do great jobs with the roles, especially Madsen who gives us his bad-boy charm that we all know and love, but also shows a bit more sympathy underneath it all, as if he too has something to prove to the people he surrounds himself with and aspires to be in the same shoes of one day. They’re all characters you’d expect to hate right off the bat, but they surprisingly have more heart and charm to them then you’d ever want to see in a flick like this. Just like the character of Joe’s stay-at-home-wife, played to perfection by Anne Heche, who not only shows us a real hard-edged woman that isn’t taking any shit from her hubby, but is also easy to sympathize with, despite her being a bit of a nag for bothering her husband about a job that not only pays the bills and gets the kids to school, but she knew about when she married him. She should be the vain of your humanity, but she’s written very realistically and performed very well by Heche herself, an actress who doesn’t get as much credit as she should.
Consensus: Though on page, Donnie Brasco should not work and be considered as conventional and predictable as they come, it surprisingly becomes a more emotional, compelling trip about what happens when a man gets too deep, can’t quite get himself out right away, but still has the screws in tight enough to get through it all. Sounds corny, but in the hands of Depp, Pacino, and the rest of the cast and crew, it’s very far from.
8.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Movpins