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.
Until next time,