Just when you thought there weren’t any fresh or new stories that could be told about mafia life, along comes a gem like Donnie Brasco, made all the more fascinating because it is based on fact. Donnie Brasco is the undercover name for Joe Pistole (Johnny Depp), an F.B.I. agent in deep cover as a jewel thief hoping to infiltrate the mob. Donnie gets his big break when he meets up with Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), an unlucky working class gangster, stuck at the bottom rung. Lefty takes a liking to Donnie, and becomes his patron, his ticket into the higher eschelons of the mafia. Soon, Donnie is in cahoots with the likes of Sonny “the Black” (Michael Madsen), and Nicky (Bruno Kirby), all struggling gangster types trying to make a profit any way they can, and not get whacked. As Donnie gets deeper and deeper in the mafia, his friendship with Lefty grows… a friendship he must ultimately betray, and one which may cause Lefty his life. There are all the trappings of traditional mafia films: tough talking wiseguys, violence, plots gone wrong, etc. But the heart of Donnie Brasco is not about any of this, but rather the bond between two men: Donnie and Lefty. Although a criminal, Lefty is a down on his luck guy who can’t seem to go anywhere. He’s the Willy Loman of the gangster world. He takes to Donnie like a surrogate father, wishing his real life loser son were more like Donnie. Al Pacino tackles this role with none of his usual brashness, but rather with a weariness that underscores Lefty’s position in life. As the title character, Johnny Depp attempts his first complex adult role, and proves himself able to convey the conflicted psyche of a man caught between friendship and justice, a man who must become evil in order to do good. These two actors hold up the film, and do a wonderful job at it. If I have one complaint with Donnie Brasco, it is that I wish there was more depth to the relationship between Donnie and his wife (Anne Heche). As it stands, her motives for putting up with Donnie are incomprehensible. But that aside, two powerful performances and a glimpse at the inner workings of the lower levels of the mob make this a must see.
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