Donnie Brasco (1997) Review

Watch Lefty and his Right-hand Man in Donnie Brasco

Directed by Mike Newell and starring a younger Johnny Depp as the titular character, Donnie Brasco is a story about friendship. It's about respect and as close a relationship can be between a student and his mentor. What makes the story unique is its tragic premise. Set in New York, it shows how Donnie befriends Lefty (Al Pacino) a deadbeat who happens to be his ticket into the mob. The latter schools him on every nuance needed to be accepted into the family, from what to wear and how to talk. Soon enough, he is introduced to the mob's power structure and is fully integrated into the life. Unfortunately for everybody involved, Donnie turns out to be an FBI agent in deep cover in order to infiltrate the Mafia.

  • Rating:
    4.00 out of 5
  • Length: 2h 7min.
  • Premiere: 2nd May 1997 (UK)
  • Category: Biography/Crime/Drama
  • Directors: Mike Newell
  • Writer: Paul Attanasio
  • Stars: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelo, Johnny Depp...

Leading a Double Life

Things get risky when Pistone starts to feel a genuine connection with his mobster pal, Lefty. Not only does this put a strain on his marriage, he also knows that his friend's life is forfeit once the operation is over. Being the ones in the know, so to speak, Donnie's emotional roller coaster connects with us on an emotional level. On one hand, we feel the burden of his assignment as he repeatedly argues with his wife (Anne Heche) and struggles to keep his family life intact. On the other, we see him truly shine whenever he is alone with old Lefty.

It's their dynamic that keeps us entertained and always at the edge of our seat. There's Lefty, the mobster who has a junkie for a son, an aimless career in the mob and a terminal illness and Donnie, a smart, good-looking kid who still has the shine of life in his eyes. Easy as it may be to guess why the old man has taken a liking to Donnie, it's a tad trickier to determine why the latter forms a bond with Lefty -- that is, until you see how desperately Lefty wants to be a mentor. Or a father.

Some Fine Acting

Although he has shown undeniable talent from the start in films such as Edward Scissorhands, this is the movie that put Johnny Depp on the map for increasingly unconventional roles that will become his own brand of acting. Donnie Brasco is also a shining moment in Al Pacino's career. Here, we see him reprise his roles as an older, more seasoned actor. It's a unique opportunity for the star and an irresistible treat for fans of The Godfather. Together, the two have such entertaining chemistry that it's worth the watch just to watch them come to life.

Of course, no amount of acting can ever make up for shoddy writing. Fortunately, Donnie Brasco's script is chock-full of memorable lines that masterfully illustrates the dynamic between the characters and sets the tone for the scenes. For instance, when Donnie asks Lefty if he thinks he's a rat, Lefty answers "How many times have I had you in my house? If you're a rat, then I'm the biggest mutt in the history of the Mafia." The delivery is macho but the sentiment is touching, to say the least.

The Mafia Isn't Kind

Because most of the movie is used to depict the evolving relationship between teacher and student, there are times when it's easy to forget that, like all crime movies, things are going to get messy. The tension is almost palpable when Donnie deals with his new friends in the mob. You never know when one of them might catch him lying through his teeth. Suspicion, paranoia and the knowledge that it's Lefty who will ultimately pay the price effectively builds some cringe-worthy suspense.

Donnie, or rather, Joseph Pistone's relationship with his wife is also a stellar highlight in the story. Being an absentee husband aside, his marriage is made even more difficult because he cannot reveal the aspects of his double life. His family lives in the suburbs so he cannot even be there most of the time. Maggie even somewhat hilariously refers to herself as a widow, a reminder of what Donnie's family has to go through while he's busy making friends in low places.

As with nearly all movies in the genre, Donnie Brasco doesn't end with sunshine and rainbows. After the friendship between Donnie and Lefty shines, we are left with a dark, rather brutal message. However, it's that irresistible contrast that gives color to the film and leaves us with a lasting impression.