FBI agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) goes undercover to infiltrate the New York Mafia, under the name Donnie Brasco. Veteran gangster Lefty (Al Pacino) brings Donnie into the mob and schools him on the ways of the wise guy. Donnie must take the gang down, but – gasp! – he becomes genuine friends with Lefty. One false move or any sign he’s not who he says he is, and it’s game over. How will Donnie get information for the FBI without costing his new friend’s life?
The story plays with the same lore as all the other mafia movies. Donnie Brasco might not be a masterpiece or on the same level as the kings of mobster movies (The Godfather & Goodfellas), but it’s still an entertaining crime film. It also has probably one of the best Johnny Depp performances I’ve seen. The strain of our protagonist’s double life gets more intense every passing moment, and Depp is excellent at conveying the stress. Donnie lives in constant fear of having his cover blown and he has to juggle this job with family life.
Donnie’s wife Maggie (Anne Heche) grows frustrated over the amount of time he spends with the gang. She can’t believe how much he’s changed since he started the operation. Even though he becomes a lot less nicer, we still care for Donnie a great deal. His gradual shift from a reserved character to a ruthless, aviator-wearing mobster, gains him more trust from Lefty and the rest of the crew. These guys will shoot first and ask questions later, yet they never skip on the groundwork. They’re always looking for ways to make money, to grow their business and to stay at the top. Most of the mobsters are the usual stereotypes, but the life of crime isn’t glamorised here.
As a true story, this is a great account of Joe Pistone’s time as an undercover agent. The events pan out pretty much how we expect, but it’s the dynamic between Donnie and lefty that makes the film compelling.
Viewing Donnie Brasco today is as good as ever. For a film that came out twenty years ago, it doesn’t feel dated in the slightest. In fact, it’s quite a refreshing watch in a time when films drowned in special effects are dominating. But if you don’t like the movie, you can “fuggedaboutit!”
Donnie Brasco. Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Paul Attanasio. Starring: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, Anne Heche.