The Underrated: Donnie Brasco

Back when I started this series, a little more than a year ago, Donnie Brasco was one of the titles I had in mind. It’s a hard one to describe as underrated, as almost every review of it is seriously laudatory, and yet, if you ask people to name mafia films it’s never mentioned. It feels as if the film is being forgotten, and I don’t for a second think that is a remotely just fate for a film as good as this. I can’t really think of any good reason for this omission, perhaps it was released at the wrong time, or perhaps it just doesn’t resonate, but this really is a shame as Donnie Brasco is a genuinely truly fantastic film, and one that marks a career high for several of the cast, not to mention Mike Newell. Nevertheless, Donnie Brasco is being so overlooked that a brief search of WordPress (looking for pictures) finds not one hit on the words “Donnie Brasco”.

Donnie Brasco was released in 1997. The 90’s was a funny old decade for film, given that arguably the definitive Cosa Nostra movie was released in 1990 (Goodfellas), but I struggle to think of any other examples of the genre other than Carlito’s Way. By 1997, Tarantino had taken the crime film world by storm with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, spawning countless lesser imitators (2 Days in the Valley, which isn’t bad and I am coming back to on this theme), so a really old-style, less glamourised mafia film such as Donnie Brasco was simply out of time. This isn’t a film with a fractured narrative, it is simply an exquisitely made conventional movie. There’s no criminal allure here, (I am aware that famously the only person that knows less about the mafia than Mario Puzo is Francis Ford Coppolla), this isn’t a film featuring overexaggerated and overcomplicated family plots, this isn’t a film with a spectacular and awesome heist sequence, and it isn’t a film that could remotely be said to romanticise Omerta. What it is, is a film that deals with the mundanity and paranoid desperation of life in the Mafia, presenting a world of squalor and terror where cutting the heads of parking meters for the change while watching over your shoulder in case your best friend is about to shoot you is the best you can hope for. Donnie Brasco shows that a life in organised crime is a dysfunctional and wretched existence, and this, arguably, is why it is overlooked. There are no mansions here, there’s no extended family with elaborate and ridiculous cooking rituals- there’s not even the delinquent appeal of heavy drug use.

Johnny Depp plays Agent Joe Pistone. Agent Pistone is undercover as a fence in Brooklyn when he’s recruited to the local branch of the Mafia by Al Pacino’s Lefty. Gradually events conspire and “Donnie Brasco” starts to climb the organised crime ladder due entirely to his relationship with Lefty and, more importantly, “Boss” Sonny Black (Michael Madsen). In the meantime, his marriage is pulled apart and he begins to lose sight of who he is as a person, the line between being a cop playing a wiseguy and actually becoming that wiseguy have become irretrievably blurred for him. Eventually, the climax is reached, and Donnie is pulled out from the mafia at the critical point much against his wishes.

I’ve given a very distilled plot summary there, and reason being that I really don’t want to spoil this film. There’s so much to it in the way of nuance, and so many individual scenes that add up to more than the sum of its parts. For example, I constantly believed Brasco to be on the verge of being revealed due to scenes such as the name of the boat in Florida, or the brutalbeating administered in the Japanese restaurant (both based on real life). I’ve also not touched upon the subplots, such as the problems he’s having at home, which culminates in the farcical visit to the marriage guidance counsellor. I knew pretty much nothing about this film when I saw it, so I will leave it as clean as I can for anyone that may want to come back to what is an arguable classic.

I’ve just said that this is a classic, and I believe it is and that there are basically two reasons for this. The first is that this is frankly one of the best scripts filmed in the 90’s. There are so many brilliant passages, such as the superb sequence when Pacino explains the difference between “Friend of mine” and “Friend of ours” but the real standout piece of dialogue is between Depp and the Florida field agents (including Paul Giammatti) where Depp explains the precise meaning of “Fuggedaboutit”. This really should have been the 1997 equivalent of “Royale with Cheese” in that it should have been known by everyone and quoted verbatim, and yet, as with much of the film, it’s slipped into the past with nary a regard from us all.

Secondly, this film features several “career high” performances. Madsen says himself that his turn in Donnie Brasco is one of only four that he’s actually proud of, and I think that it may be his best performance. Sonny Black is a great bear of a man, and Madsen gives a turn that oozes understated menace. It’s top drawer stuff. Al Pacino has had a long and lauded career, but his performance here as the miserable and paranoid Lefty, a hitman with over 20 kills that worries about everything and has “cancer of the prick” is a masterpiece of pathos. There’s little of the usual Pacino shouting here, and I defy anyone not to be moved by his final appearance. Even the support cast are great with the late Bruno Kirby putting in a role very much against type, and a definite apex for Anne Heche as Maggie Pistone. However, the revelation here is Depp. Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands et al  may be flashier roles, but his turn as Pistone is probably the best work he’s ever done. Take the scene with Heche where he is attempting to explain the consequences of coming in- it’s a monumental performance and in the hands of someone less on their game could have been trite and embarrassing. We believe Depp here, because we want to, he’s sympathetic and desperate and is striving to save his friend’s life.

Overall, this is a superb film, and one that is unfairly forgotten. In fact, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else in that having rewatched it for the first time in years I’m reminded that I did have it on my “best of the 90’s” list. How I’ve managed to forget what is clearly a masterpiece is simply terrible of me, and therefore I don’t blame anyone else that has forgotten either. I’m off to purchase a copy, it’s insane that my DVD shelf has every Tarantino film on it, and is missing this, the last great Mafia film, a film that bitch slaps everything Cokey McFrankenstienhead has done.

Recommended as essential. So much so, actually, that for the first time ever I’m linking to something non-Moonwolves in a review.

This is the “Fuggedaboutit” scene:

Until next time,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

30 responses to “The Underrated: Donnie Brasco”

  1. just pillow talk says :

    Yeah, I’m guilty of not seeing this in ages too. It’s probably is the things you mentioned: lack of an explosive heist, over-the-top performance, things of that nature, hence it’s sort of forgotten.

    Your review has spurred me on to add it to my queue, and I’ll definitely get to it at some point.

    It will be good to see Depp in this type of performance again too.

  2. Droid says :

    I watch this every two years or so. I absolutely love it. Pacino is so fucking good in it. The “pinch or a punch” exchange is brilliant. This is Depps second best performance (behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… okay, kidding. Behind Ed Wood). The only fault with the entire performance is in one line delivery, where he says “I’m nothing” , and he goes a little OTT with the wiseguy pronunciation (nuttin, dropping the tt). Apart from that he’s terrific.

    Definitely one of my favourite movies of the 90’s.

    • Droid says :

      And it’s a great counterpoint to the glamorous Goodfellas portrayal. Scraping to meet this months vig, the dingy bar they hang out at, the paranoia. “You never see it coming and it’s your best friend that does it.” Goodfellas made it appealling to be a gangster. Donnie Brasco makes it seem like a miserable life.

      • Jarv says :

        Yeah, and that’s really booted home by the end- Invisitxt ahoy, although probably everyone has seen it.

        Where Pacino’s putting all his valuables, even down to his necklace and cufflinks in the drawer so his missus isn’t completely potless after he’s whacked. Brutal

        Awesome movie.

  3. koutchboom says :

    I need to watch this again. I saw it when it first dropped on VHS. I liked it then. Can’t believe this is Mike shittest Harry Potter film Newell. Dude needs to go back to character movies not tent pole event films. He also did Pushing Tin which I enjoyed.

    Hrmmm he also did Love in the Time of Cholera? I’ve heard mixed things on that one, but I just saw someone talking about it the other day I the premise interest me, the initial trailer for it though made it look boring as shit. I wonder since that movie flopped he decided to go back to making crap again (Stuntmen of Persia).

    • Jarv says :

      You have to let go of this. Harry Potter 4 is much, much better than 1 and 2. However, it still isn’t good.

      Give him shit for really awful stuff like Mona Lisa Smile, or An Awfully Big Adventure, or 4 Weddings, or even PoP.

      • koutchboom says :

        Naw 1 and 2 were fun kids films. 4 was a failed attempt at MATURING them with a lot of lame teen coming of age bollocks.

        Awww he’s from Hertfordshire, thats why he filmed 4 Weddings where he did. I used to live right across the M25 from that mansion.

      • Jarv says :

        1 and 2 were piss boring films that Rowling may as well have directed.

        4 was a crap film but was much less dull.

      • koutchboom says :

        1 and 2 were fun they weren’t so embarrassingly cheesy that it made me want to walk out of the theater, unlike 4. 4 makes you hate that ginger thunderpants fuck, it ruined the series.

      • Jarv says :

        I fell asleep in 1 in the cinema and hated every moment of 2. Embarrassingly Cheesy- did you see fucking Branagh in that? I’ve said he was good in the past, but I saw him for about 5 minutes recently and I actually blushed for him.

        Awful, awful shit. Both of them.

      • Droid says :

        I fell asleep in the cinema watching the second one. And it was the middle of the afternoon.

        I thought we had this convo before and agreed that the third one is the only good one.

      • koutchboom says :

        I thought we had this convo before and agreed that the third one is the only good one.

        I can live with that.

      • Jarv says :

        We have, and we did.

  4. Frank Marmöset says :

    This film is retarded.

    What was the deal with the water snakes coming out of everyone’s chests? And the time traveling old lady? And then you find out Patrick Swayze is a kiddie fiddler, which has nothing to do with anything.

    Dumbest film I ever saw. For serious.

    • Col Tigh-Fighter says :

      Best. Review. Ever

      I’m nicking this! The most concise explanation for that pretentious pile of wank I’ve ever read.

      I can’t say how much I dislike that film 😉

  5. Xiphos0311 says :

    Donnie Brasco is a stunningly excellent work of art. It is a layered and textured film every bit the equal of Godfather 1 and 2 and Goodfellas. If anybody says any different they are either retarded or lying.

    The other thing that is pretty amazing is that the movie is better then the book it’s based on. Pistone in the book comes off like a total asshat and claims credit as the first guy to infiltrate any organized crime enterprise ever which is totally false. The other funny thing is that Johnny Depp is about 4-5 inches shorter and around 70-80 pounds lighter then Pistone who was a big muscular dude that worked out like a mad man.

    Droid Goodfellas did show how easy you lost your life in the Mob and really how bad the life of a mobster can be. The only difference was that Henry and his crew were working at a much higher level then the likes of Lefty who was a street soldier only, and except for killing, not a very good one.

    Henry Hill was connected up and down the Lucchese family(and other families also) since forever. Both he and Jimmy Burke(Jimmy Conway in the movie) were high earning thieves. They stole from Kennedy airport, stole trucks, sold stolen untaxed cigarettes, loan sharking, bust out schemes and then the Air France and Lufthansa Robberies. They were truly professional thieves. If either Hill or Burke were Sicilian they would have become made men relatively early but since they both had Irish blood flowing in their veins that way wasn’t open to them. The Italians were more then happy to get money from their efforts though.

    Lefty, on the other hand, was just a mutt the local capo used and Jimmy Black, personally, used the living hell out of him to bolster his own position. Most soldiers in OC have shitty lives that’s why they try to get made the real money comes from being a boss.

    • Col Tigh-Fighter says :

      Ive not seen this since when it first came out.

      I remember thinking it was brilliant, then not thinking about it again. Strange

      I’ll defo have to rewatch this soon.

    • Droid says :

      Oh, I agree there Xi. I was just comparing the two in that they show two very different aspects of mob life. In Goodfellas the main characters were the kings. While in DB they were, as you say, foot soldiers. Nickle and dime thieves and enforcers. I love both films and they kind of work alongside each other. GF showing the mob at its height, and then as it falls apart, and DB showing almost the last throes of the organised mob as we know it. I’ve read Henry Hills book. Might try to find Picones.

  6. ThereWolf says :

    Yeh – guilty. I watched Brasco, liked it (didn’t love it, have to admit) and haven’t thought of the film much since – though did have a short chat about it at work couple of weeks ago.

    I also recall having a conversation about Madsen and some bloke saying his only stand out role was in Rezzy Dogs to which I mentioned Brasco. This bloke was going “Nah, nah, he’s better in Dogs…” but I had to let the argument go coz I couldn’t properly remember Madsen’s performance in Brasco.

    I’ll have to watch this one again sometime.

    Nice write-up, Jarv.

  7. Tom_Bando says :

    I’m the guy who suggested this to you Jarv back when. It’s a great flick. I really enjoy Bruno Kirby in here-it’s a very Joe Pesci like role-and it turns out Pesci was offered it. Kirby has his own unique vibe though and I’m just as happy w/ him thank you much.

    Doesn’t strike you as being just true to life, about as much as Hollywood can get w/out it being chaotic and dull? From the King’s Castle Club to the shoot-out in the cellar to the exchanges in the car between Depp and Pacino-just oozes authenticity.

    Never thought I would like Ann Heche in anything, but here-she’s pretty good.

    Check this out if you haven’t—I agree w/ whatever Jarv sez above out this. Cokey couldn’t have directed this if he had two scripts written for him.

    Which he usually does.

    In Crayon.

    Endorsed by Harold.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers Tom.

      Reading about it, a lot of the set pieces like the boat feel real because they are real.

      Completely underrated film and Cokey would have butchered it

  8. Spud McSpud says :

    Yep, great movie, with a worthy review – great writing as always, Jarv. I remember seeing this movie on enjoying the hell out of the trailer, and two things standing out for me – (1) the performances are all top notch, but particular kudos go to Johnny Depp, who really brings out the ambiguity and the existential confusion he suffers when the lines get blurred, and Al Pacino, whose downbeat performance is one of the best of his career. By dialling it down, he lifts it, and the scene where he puts all his jewellery in a box is a masterclass in pathos and underplayed resignation – it’s just riveting and beautiful to watch. (2) The fact that it is so the opposite of any other Mafia movie I’ve ever seen. There’s no glamour here, just hard lives getting harder, and the film is made in such a matter-of-fact tone that you never once envy the characters, or want to be them – and the change in approach regarding this tone is very welcome. It’s different, and I loved it for that.

    You’ve inspired me to take another look at this movie, which I haven’t seen in years, and that’s the highest compliment I can give a review – that it makes me immediately want to watch the movie again. Nice one, Jarv.

  9. Xiphos0311 says :

    Jarv you forgot the other classic mafioso movie from the 90’s written by Nicholas Pileggi and um ah his wife coughcoughNoraEphroncoughcough My Blue Heaven.

  10. Tom_Bando says :

    Just re-thinking about this movie, I agree w/ Pacino’s last scene there-putting away his valuables into that drawer. He knows he’s not coming back. That’s quite something. Rarely will you see a scene written or played as subtly or believably as this—no speeches, no histrionics, etc. It’s like this movie in a nutshell. It feels lived in and authentic.

  11. The Death Of Frank Marmoset says :

    I might watch this one again, actually. After all those dopey Friday The 13th films, I need to see something more down to earth with real characters and proper performances, and Donnie Brasco would fit the bill nicely. It’s a good film. I don’t agree it’s better than Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, though.

    You’re right when you say it’s one of Michael Madsen’s best performances, he’s really good in it. Mind you, I enjoy watching that guy even when he’s bad.

    Yep, I think I’m going to give this another look tonight.

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