At times more like Heat in style rather than Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco is a mix of many gangster films that have gone before, drawing parallels between mob life, and the real family life of each character, and showing the blurring of boundaries which can often occur. The style, the dialogue, the wit, the violence, everything we would expect to see is here, but there are enough good moments to keep the movie unique, and there are some good performances from typically very good actors. The film does not dwell on the scenes of murder, but rather focuses on characterisation, and the relationship between Donnie Brasco, the undercover agent who succumbs to the mafia way, and Lefty, an aging mobster who, in spite of his dedication and respected work has little to show for it, and never seems to rise through the ranks.
Johnny Depp plays Joe, an FBI agent, married with kids. He goes undercover as Donnie Brasco, an orphan from Florida to try and infiltrate the New York mafia. When Lefty, a member of the mob takes interest in him, Donnie becomes part of the gang. Lefty teaches him everything and acts like a father, and they become close as Donnie sees how Lefty wishes he could get away with his family, and hates the fact that he is always ‘passed over’. Madsen plays Sonny Black, a member who is rising ahead of Lefty even though he is younger and has done less. They move to Florida as Black tries to set up on his own, but the FBI raid his new club. They believe there is a rat, and kill one of their own thinking it was him. Lefty and Donnie know he was not a rat though. Black decides to kill Sonny Red and the other bosses so that he can have New York, and by this time Donnie is respected in the group and may one day become a ‘made man’. His family have been deserted, and the FBI do not know what he is doing. Brasco says he is trying to get Lefty out of the group before he is killed, as when Brasco is uncovered, Lefty will undoubtedly die. Brasco is becoming just like the men he was supposed to be putting away, and getting deeper into trouble with each day.
Overall it is the acting which keeps the film running at a steady, watchable pace. Depp is very good as Brasco, convincing in his dual roles and in his portrayal of how easy it can be to be seduced by power. Pacino is on familiar territory, and again is intense and thoughtful when he needs to be, giving another strong performance. Madsen is also good as the short-fused Sonny Black, and everyone else does what they have to do. The script is nothing we haven’t seen before, and although it sometimes seems like it is trying to too easily explain the ways and words of the mob, it still has a few refreshing moments. The life seems less glitzy than in other gangster films, and there are few shows of extravagance. These men seem to be low on the ladder, and not as good at what they do as other characters from other movies. We are left feeling great sympathy towards Lefty, even though he has been in the game for so long, he seems naive and in need of a real son or someone to connect with. He never gets a break, and is always the man given the smaller jobs. He has been in the business for so long that he knows little else though, and we sense from the start that he will never get away. Even though Joe completes his job, he knows blood will be forever on his hands and after having a taste of the high life, it will be difficult for him to return to normality.
The DVD has a short making of and trailer. The skant extras should not sway you from picking up this great film.
As always, feel free to leave any comments on the movie- how does this rank against the other Mafia/mob movies? Would you like to see Depp take on more ‘serious’ roles like he does here?