Despite the mafia theme (we’ve been there) and the casting of Al Pacino as a mobster (boy, has this godfather ever been there), Donnie Brasco is one terrific movie. It’s the true ’70s-era story of how FBI agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) went undercover in the mob as a jewel fence, Donnie Brasco, to infiltrate the operations of the Bonanno family in Brooklyn, N.Y. His entree is Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino), an aging, fading hood who takes in Donnie like a son and is taken in and betrayed in return. That is, until the FBI begins to question Donnie’s loyalties. Based on the 1989 book by Pistone and Richard Woodley, which Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) has shaped into an astringent screenplay that bristles with rudely funny lowlife dialogue, the movie blends the intensity of a docudrama with the intimacy of a character study.
Pacino and Depp are a match made in acting heaven, riffing off each other with astonishing subtlety and wit. Pacino’s role is flamboyant — Lefty is a bottom-rung hood with a crude wardrobe and a cruder mouth — but the 56-year-old actor tempers the excess that has marred his work since he hoo-ha’d his way to a 1993 Oscar in Scent of a Woman. Depp, an actor of admirable restraint even as the cross-dressing hero of Ed Wood, brings out the artful slyness in Pacino. Depp digs deeply into his role, finding sweetness and unsettling stealth in this agent who chooses to work undercover. The delicate balance of Depp’s performance ranks him with the acting elite.
Another asset of Donnie Brasco is Mike Newell, the British director best known for his light, romantic touch in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Enchanted April. Most American directors would shamelessly copy Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy or Martin Scorsese in his GoodFellas mode or Sidney Lumet, back in 1973, when he directed Serpico and gave Pacino his star-making role as an undercover cop (Pacino was 33 at the time, Depp’s age now). Those films aimed for a mythic resonance; Newell, though he doesn’t skimp on violence, aims to keep his characters life-size. He sees the gangster and the FBI agent as spokes in a big wheel — like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It’s a fresh, welcome approach.
Instead of starting with a big bang, Donnie Brasco begins by cannily observing Lefty in his element, drinking coffee in the afternoon at a restaurant with three younger wiseguys, affable Nicky (Bruno Kirby), hard-ass Paulie (James Russo) and take-charge Sonny Black (a superb Michael Madsen). “Ain’t no way a Lincoln is better than a Cadillac,” says Lefty, just to start something. “Fugged-aboudit.” To Lefty, fuggedaboudit can mean a good thing like, “Raquel Welch’s ass, fuggedaboudit.” Or a bad thing like, “Buy a pair of slacks not jeans — this ain’t a rodeo, fuggedaboudit.” Or sometimes, as Donnie tells the FBI agents, it can simply mean, “Forget about it.”
Catching sight of a stranger at the bar, Lefty learns he is Donnie Brasco, a jeweler from Florida, and tries to lay off a diamond ring on him for $8,000. Lefty has major gambling debts and needs cash just to pay the vig. Donnie tells Lefty the diamond is a fake. Shocked, Lefty forces Donnie to drive with him to confront the crook he won the ring from in a bet. Donnie beats up the crook and makes him apologize. “That cracks me up,” says Lefty. “I got 26 hits under my belt, and you’re the one he’s scared of.” The trap is set.
In a series of riveting scenes, strikingly shot by cinematographer Peter Sova, Lefty schools Donnie in the rules of the wiseguy game; how to dress (polyester), how to carry money (in a roll, never a wallet) and how to tell the difference when Lefty says “a friend of mine” (a connected guy) and “a friend of ours” (a made guy, the highest honor).
Newell deftly contrasts the lifestyles of his two protagonists. The divorced Lefty lives in the projects with a Barcalounger, a TV and a plastic Christmas tree. He complains of “cancer of the prick,” of being passed over by the mob for Sonny Black, who gets upped to Brooklyn boss. Lefty thinks he’s better than his manicotti-eating goombahs. He cooks coq au vin. Watching him hack a chicken to pieces, oblivious to the carnage in his kitchen, is comic bliss. Fuggedaboudit.
Donnie’s apartment is an empty shell: weights, TV, a bench press. He uses a pay phone to call Maggie (Anne Heche), the wife he leaves at home in New Jersey with their three kids. The undercover job, meant to last three months, stretches to six years and nearly destroys the Pistone marriage. Heche’s scenes with Depp have a rending poignancy. There is love there, but no way to share his secret life. In time, Lefty becomes Donnie’s family as the agent begins to resent the system he has sworn to protect and to respect the wiseguy he has sworn to take down.
When the FBI sends Donnie to Miami to infiltrate the Santo Trafficante family, Lefty sees it as a chance for him and Donnie to run a bar on the beach: “Something to show for 30 years of busting my hump.” It’s not to be. On a yacht, Lefty overhears as Sonny Black introduces Donnie to Trafficante as “a friend of ours.” Donnie is the made guy now; Lefty is old news. Pacino, in a riveting display of acting prowess that involves no dialogue, ages 10 years in bitter defeat.
Depp is vividly moving when Donnie sneaks home to see his wife. “I’m not becoming like them,” he tells Maggie. “I am them.” Donnie feels responsible for the death of a wiseguy he inadvertently framed. He has participated with Lefty in butchery when the dead are chopped into pieces with a meat saw in a basement after a mob rub out. The squeamish will head for the exits during this sequence, which is suffused with red from blood that sprays on a light bulb.
In trying to save Lefty, the agent strays from his own moral center. And what does Joe Pistone earn for finally doing the right thing? A medal, a spot in the Witness Protection Program for his family and a $500,000 contract on his head. There are also a handshake and a brush-off from the FBI director that are as sudden and inexplicable as a wiseguy who, on orders, can kill a friend of 20 years. Like Lefty says, “Them’s the rules.” Donnie Brasco has a sting in its tail that is rare in a movie from a major Hollywood studio. The inhumanity on both sides of the law nags at you. One thing you won’t do is fuggedaboudit.