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Donnie Brasco

December 12, 2006

Is there any difference between a FBI agent and a Mob hit man apart from the fact that they are on the opposite sides of the law?

What happens when in asked to uncover secrets about the enemy, you end up becoming like the enemy yourself?

When a person goes undercover, can he prevent himself from getting influenced by what he sees?

Donnie Brasco(1997) starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, is a mobster movie, which seeks to look at some of the above issues. Lefty Rugeiro( Pacino) is an ageing Mob hitman who feels bitter and left out after 26 years of serving the Bonnano mafia family in New York. As he says “I got 26 hits under my belt and nothing to show for it”.

He meets Donnie Brasco( Depp) at a restaurant and impressed by him, he takes him under his wings. He also introduces him to other gang members Nicky( Bruno Kirby) an affable and friendly chap, Paulie( James Russo) a tough as nails hoodlum and Sonny Black( Michael Madsen), a domineering, brutal thug, who likes to dominate the show. Lefty hates Sonny, as he feels that Sonny is the more favored guy, inspite of him doing the dirty work. Lefty feels he is just a “spoke in the wheel”, nothing more, nothing less, and inspite of putting his life on the line, he has not had anything at all. He is a loser, divorced, his son is a junkie, and he himself is in heavy debt.

Lefty sees Donnie as the surrogate son, he always wanted to have, and takes him under his wings, like a protective father figure. He wants to see the success in Donnie, which he never achieved in his life.Only unknown to him, Donnie is not a hoodlum. In fact his real name is Joe Pistone, and he is an undercover FBI agent, used to infiltrate the Mob, and capture evidence that could bring down the Bonnano family. Every time Lefty, introduces Donnie to the mob ways, he is in fact signing his own death warrant, because whatever he says, and whatever he does, is being recorded and the information is fed back to the FBI.

Nor is Donnie’s life any better. He is estranged from his wife Maggie( Anne Heche) and his family. He develops a close friendship with Lefty, and is tormented with the guilt that he is betraying his friend, every moment and in fact is the person who would be responsible for his death.

As he says:If I come out alive, this guy, Lefty, ends up dead. That’s the same thing as me putting the bullet in his head myself.

And as he keeps working with the mob, he finds himself becoming a part of themselves, to the extent that he is unable to decide on which side is he. Based on a real life incident, Donnie Brasco is one of the best mobster movies to have ever come out. It is based on the true life story of FBI agent Joe Pistone, who successfully infiltrated the Mafia, and was responsible for the indictment of the Bonnano family.

The movie is directed by Mike Newell, who had earlier directed the hit British romantic comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Asking a British director famous for his romantic comedies, to direct a New York gangster movie, usually the domain of Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, is somewhat akin to Sooraj Barjatya directing a movie on the Mumbai underworld.

To his credit, Newell, does an excellent job, by focusing on the emotional aspect, though the movie has enough gory stuff, a shootout in a bar and the famous Japanese restaurant scene, where Brasco, orchestrates an attack, to record it for the Fed’s information.What differentiates Donnie Brasco, from other gangster classics like The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface is that the focus is more on the lowest level of the Mafia. The hit men or the foot soldiers, who do the dirty work, put their lives on the line and are always the fall guys in case something goes wrong.

These are not the glam boys of the Mafia, not the Michael Corleones, the Al Capones or the Bugsy Malones. They don’t attend fancy cocktail dinners, are usually rough hewn, and are usually a fair target for both the cops and their masters.

As Lefty says Thirty years I’m busting my hump. What have I got?

These are the guys who inhabit seedy restaurants, drink in cheap bars and live in broken down homes. And nothing better illustrates it than the character of Lefty. A long time faithful hit man for the Bonnano family, he has nothing to show for his pains. His personal life is in a mess, and he is constantly bypassed for others. These are the people who are used and then thrown aside.

There are some like Sonny, who manage to find favor with the boss, but many are just like Lefty.

But where Newell scores overwhelmingly is in the relationship between Donnie and Lefty. Lefty sees Donnie as the son he had never had, and as a person who could achieve what he could not in all his life. He is the person who introduces Donnie to the gang, not knowing that he is the man who could end his life. In one of the most memorable scenes he introduces Donnie saying:When I introduce you, I’m gonna say, “This is a friend of mine.” That means you’re a connected guy. Now if I said instead, this is a friend of ours that would mean you a made guy. A Capiche?

The scenes where Lefty trains Donnie in the ways of the mob, are some of the best in the movie. From the lingo to how to hold a gun to how to be wary of strangers, he teaches him everything. Donnie is torn aside between his feelings for Lefty and his duty.

In a superb scene he asks him

Donnie: You think I am a rat..?

Lefty: 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.

Alas Lefty doesn’t know that he indeed is one of the biggest mutts. And Donnie finds himself becoming so closely associated with the gang as he says

All my life I’ve tried to be the good guy, the guy in the white hat. And for what? For nothing. I’m not becoming like them; I am them.

Of course the movie would not have been what it is without Al Pacino and Johnny Deep. Their scenes together are a cracker, and form some of the best parts of the movie. Watching these two great actors together is a delight.

This was one of Depp’s earlier roles, and he puts in a memorable performance in a complex role. As an agent torn between friendship and his sense of duty, as a man who is confused about his identity and as a person torn away from his family, Depp is outstanding.

And as for Pacino, suffice to say this is one of his best performances. As the loser Lefty, he makes you emphathize with him. Not only Donnie Brasco, even you feel sorry, that he is going to be betrayed. You feel saddened by his failures, and when he says “ I am the biggest mutt”, you are compelled to say “Oh no please not this guy”. And the best scene, comes when he overhears his boss favoring Brasco over him. No dialogues, just expression on his face, reflecting his anguish at being bypassed, and yet happy for his friend, just top class.

Michael Madsen who shot to fame as Mr.Blonde( remember the famous torture scene) in Tarantino’s cult classic Reservoir Dogs, is top notch as Sonny, while Anne Heche is pathetic as Depp’s wife.If for nothing just watch this movie for Johnny Depp and Al Pacino, as these two great actors simply light up the screen with their dazzling performances.
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One Comment
  1. An interesting appraisal of film that I feel history will be kind to even if it never set the world on fire at the box office. Al Pacino was obviously very much in his element and as such his performance was effortless and seductive as always.I struggle when Depp plays complicated roles as I think he is far too 'pretty' to play a believable hard case. However in this early role he excelled himself.Thanks again.

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