Donnie Brasco (18)

Directed by Mike Newell
Starring Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Anne Hecht

A sort of Goodfellas meets..well, Goodfellas! Depp plays FBI agent Joe Piscone who goes undercover as Donnie and soon hooks up with ageing minor hood Lefty(Pacino), and other assorted mobsters. We follow the usual power struggles, casual violence, scams and that whole bunch of crap about these being men of some sort of twisted code of honour. To be honest, I hate the idea of these sort of films. They really DO present these vicious criminals as heros. OK, so we are appalled by the violence, but in Goodfellas it was the bonkers Joe Pesci, and here much of the viciousness is from power hungry and ruthless Michael Madsen. By giving themselves a scapegoat, the film makers seek to distance themselves from the everyday presentation of casual killings. 'See, its just this character'. But the whole culture is one where life is cheap, keeping face is all, and you really should Trust No One. By presenting a life of crime as just another way of making a living, it glorifies it in my view.
Donnie Brasco at first appears to be another movie guilty of all these things, but actually, its morality is a little different. We see the mob life through Donnie's eyes, and thus keep a proper sense of detachment and separateness from the mobs activites. One of the most memorable scenes in the film comes when Donnie visits a Japanese restaurant with the guys. When he discovers he has to remove his shoes, Donnie realizes he will expose the small tape recorder strapped inside his boot. So, he refuses and incites the others into a brutal beating of a hapless Japanese waiter. Donnie's feelings of guilt and horror are readily understandable. He is torn between keeping cover, but his own sense of justice.
Al Pacino as Lefty is very good. He is a rather pathetic character. His son is a junkie, and his wife isn't part of his mob life. Lefty picks up Donnie and shows him off to his mob friends like a new trophy girlfriend. Pacino shows Lefty's desperate but pitifully half-hearted attempts to make more of himself.
Meanwhile, we also meet Joe's wife Maggie(Hecht), and three daughters. Understandably, she is not too happy about his new life. The funniest scenes come when they visit a counsellor who suggests they make time for each other each day. Despite the humour, it is actually completely illogical for them to visit a counsellor, when their problems are abundantly clear to anyone; Joe isn't there for months at a time. Hecht is the usual One Decent Womans Role in these sort of films.(Stone in Casino, Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, Penelope Ann Miller in Carlito's Way etc), but even her role is little more than a nag/occasional conscience for Joe.
One very grisly mass killing, the obligatory hip chat(think the restaurant scene in Reservoir Dogs or the Royale with cheese chat in Pulp Fiction), this time about cars. Mob speak lessons and a self conciously trying-to-be-a-classic chat about the nuances in mobsters saying 'forget about it'. All this adds up to a quite well made film from unexpected British director Newell. Good performance from Pacino, adequate from Depp, Michael Madsen's usual sneer and grin.(Can he do anything else? I guess Mr Blond was a high point.)
One of the most interesting points about this film is that it is based very much on true events. There was a real Donnie Brasco, and a real Lefty. I still am dubious about the value of mob films, but this one was a bit different and thought provoking. However, not a million miles away from..well Goodfellas. 7/10

May 1997

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