I wasn’t lying when i said i liked Al Pacino here, watching Heat has got me in the mood to watch a few of his other 90’s films.
When i first found this movie i was shocked, i picked it up and said to myself:
“wtf? Johnny Depp and Al Pacino did a movie together? A gangster movie at that? And i didn’t know about this until now?”
Needless to say i scooped it up straight away and didn’t wait to watch it, as they are indeed my two favourite actors (although Depp’s career as of late, has been rather uneven).
Undercover cop Joe Pistone infiltrates the Italian Mob under the alias Donnie Brasco, however his growing friendship with his mobster mentor Lefty and his family’s suffering over his long absences, threatens to tear him apart.
Al Pacino gives what i would say is one of his later career’s stand out performances. He plays his gangster Lefty as a hunched over worn out mobster, who feels he should deserve better. His longing stares, and fruitless plans are a great change from the usual “man with the plan” or leadership roles he usually takes. Lefty is the complete opposite of Michael Corleone, he’s a man who isn’t noticed because he isn’t a leader, and will forever be thought of as someone who is dependable.
Depp on the other hand plays his Joe Pistone, as a man who is slowly starting to unravel. His constant and growing guilt assaulting him from both his job of betraying his friend Lefty, and ditching his family to hang out with mobsters. Worst yet is how over the course of the film, he starts to lose the cop Joe Pistone to gangster Donnie Brasco. Coupled with a solid supporting cast of Michael Madsen and Anne Heche among others, no one should be complaining about acting here.
Aside from the performances the story provides an interesting look at how the Italian Mafia functioned in the late 70’s. Terms like “Wise Guy”, “Skipper”, and the difference between being a friend of mine versus a friend of ours, are all explained.
While most of the scenes that show the cost of Joe Pistone’s actions of leaving his family for years are effective for the most part, there is one scene in particular that strikes me as really out of place. This would be when Joe and his wife Maggie go to a marriage councillor. It just comes out of left field and is as awkward to sit through as it would be for the characters. Maggie relates to the councillor about how he leaves for months, knowing full well the reason why.
Joe knows that his absence is ruining his family, why are we having the characters tell me what i already can see going on? I think anyone actually watching the film can figure out this couple’s problems, so this scene is just bizarre; it doesn’t illuminate motivations, it adds no subtext, and it’s just out of place in a hard hitting gangster film.
While the performances manage to make Donnie Brasco noteworthy, ultimately if you’ve watched a lot of gangster/undercover cop movies, you’ve probably already seen all this before. I can read its events off like a check list:
- Undercover cop who is burning/burnt out? Check.
- Suffering personal life and/or family life supplies pathos to cop? Check.
- Charismatic Mobsters? Check.
- Cop’s growing guilt over eventual betrayal of said gangster? Check.
I can go on, but that distracts from the point that i want to make, which is the fact that when you boil down any story they all end up sounding the same. It’s the details that make a difference, and the details in Donnie Brasco are so well done, that it remains a great entry into the gangster/cop movie oeuvre.
**** OUT OF FIVE