Donnie Brasco (1997)

DVD_COVERDonnie Brasco features Johnny Depp as the title character, an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the New York Mafia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Based on a true story of undercover agent Joseph D. Pistone the movie follows his gradual acceptance into the Mafia family and his close relationship with Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) while sacrificing connections to his real life and family.

Donnie Brasco is one of those near perfect films that works on all levels. Pacino who has built a career out of chewing scenery is practically subdued and his performance is spot on in this movie. Depp and Pacino are so immersed in their characters they, like Pistone, have gone deep undercover. Depp turns in his best “straight” performance to date and while you can convincely argue he’s still playing a “character”, its an effective illusion that serves the movie’s plot.


1970’s New York – Donnie Brasco (Depp) and Lefty (Al Pacino) go for a walk.

Writer Paul Attanasio (Creator of Homicide: Life on the Streets) makes a shrewd choice to open the movie with a scene where Donnie Brasco is in a local bar trying to initiate contact with Lefty for the first time. By immediately immersing the character and the audience in the world of the Mafia it becomes our primary point of view. The writer and director want us to question whether this guy is really FBI since he plays the role of a criminal as if he was born to it. Had they led with some background story on Pistone’s career, or the parameters of the case the movie would have been more about the cops and how they are going to make the case. Instead we are allowed to concentrate our attention on Donnie (Depp) and Lefty (Pacino) until we have firmly embraced the gangster point-of-view. Only then does the movie slowly begin to include more and more details of Brasco’s connection to the FBI.

The story plays on both Pistone/Brasco’s identity as a cop/criminal as well as his loyalties to his new Mafia family as well as his own wife and children who have lost him to his job.

When the climax of the film finally comes and Donnie is pulled out from undercover we feel his pain as he is torn away from a life he’s built and the relationships he has built. Yes he was doing a job and trying to bring these criminals to justice, but the intensity of the life he was living undercover and his betrayal of those in the Mafia that took him in affect him in ways we can’t imagine.

As for Depp’s I thought he reached new heights with the intensity of his performance in the movie. Up until now it feels like many of the characters he’s played have been “along for the ride”, reacting to what life throws at them, whereas in Donnie Brasco, we get a feel for both Depp’s ability to “go undercover” in a character while the character he is playing is still calling the shots and putting it all out there. In Donnie Brasco both the actor Depp and the FBI Agent Pistone are, to borrow a poker term, “all in”. It’s all or nothing.

The movie does a great job of giving us a glimpse into the complexity of the politics, relationships, and dealings of the criminal underworld without overly glamorizing the lifestyle like some gangster movies do. Well written, directed, and acted by all involved its a movie I would highly recommend to anyone that likes a good drama.

By the Numbers…

  • The fifth movie in which Depp plays the character the movie is named after. The other four being Ed Wood, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Edward Scissorhands, and Don Juan DeMarco.
  • The second movie in which Depp’s character has facial hair for part of the movie.

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