Pacino and Depp in a mob drama about an undercover fed and his unknowing Mafioso mentor? Fuggedaboudit.
Donnie Brasco is based on the true story of F.B.I. agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp, Blow), who spent six successful years undercover in the New York Mafia, as one Donnie Brasco. The film opens with Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino, Heat), an aging made man, connecting with Donnie about a diamond ring. Donnie’s cover is he’s in the jewelry “business”, and Lefty wants to unload a ring some guy …ave him as payment for a debt. When Donnie insists the ring’s a fake, Lefty goes back to see the guy, bringing Donnie along. The guy still claims it’s the real deal, but Donnie asks for a minute to “talk to him.” Permission from Lefty granted, Donnie smacks the guy around, threatens murder and makes the guy give up the keys to his Porsche.
So starts a tight relationship, between made guy Lefty and Donnie, his connected underling and chosen pupil. Lefty, a killer with 26 hits under his belt, eventually vouches for Donnie to his bosses – a big move, because it means he’s responsible for Donnie. If something goes wrong – like Donnie turning out to be a cop – the mob veteran will die with his protégé. With Lefty standing up for him, Donnie is allowed into the fold of a mafia crew led by Sonny Black (Michael Madsen, Kill Bill), a violent, ambitious leader.
The crew hits the big time when Sonny becomes a boss, but Lefty resents that promotion, admitting to Donnie he feels passed over. Still, the crew stays together, working to beat out a rival boss, all while Donnie continues to collect evidence and file reports on their activities. As the years pass, the stress of undercover work takes a toll on Donnie. His marriage falls apart, and after a double-cross, Sonny’s crew is suspicious of a possible mole in the organization. By this time, Pistone is so deep undercover he feels more like Donnie than his true self, and when his superiors want to pull him out he resists, because he knows if he gets out his friend and mentor, Lefty, is doomed.
Donnie Brasco is an intelligent character drama, and it succeeds thanks to the excellent performances by Pacino and Depp. Pacino has done way more than his share of mobster films, from The Godfather to Carlito’s Way, but he’s especially good here because Lefty is an entirely different type of character. Instead of a charismatic mastermind, he’s a sad-sack never-was. Pacino plays Lefty in such an understated, nuanced way, you’ll stare at the screen wondering how it could be the same guy who ruled every room in Scarface. Depp is just as good, creating a lot of depth for his character as he struggles with the undercover life, his non-existent life with his family and the final dilemma of having Lefty’s fate in his hands. Donnie’s wife, played by Anne Heche (Birth), deserves an honorable mention, as while she has little screen time, her moments are very strong, with complexity of emotion.
If you look at the story, though, the script is very much a re-hashing of various mob themes we’ve seen time and again in American cinema. Many of the characters fill cliché roles we all expect to see in gangster films, so without the powerhouse acting led by the two leading men, Donnie Brasco would just be a solid example of an overdone genre.
As for the additional footage added for this extended cut, I can’t say it makes a whole lot of difference. Surprising, considering the extra stuff adds up to about 20 minutes, but it just doesn’t add any real depth to the main themes of loyalty and honor, or the character relationships. On the bright side, the extended cut is well-paced, and you don’t really feel the added length. I suppose that means there isn’t much point in recommending this cut over the original theatrical version.
So the film rises above a clichéd script thanks to great performances, but the extended cut doesn’t raise it any further. How’s the DVD?
Donnie Brasco – Extended Cut is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, preserving the aspect ratio of its original theatrical run. It looks very, very good. I expected a solid presentation with a few noticeable but consistent flaws, but I honestly noticed none. Colours are accurate, from the subdued hues of New York to the vibrant tones of “the beach” in Florida. Black levels are excellent, with plenty of detail in the darker scenes, and film grain is absent. Overall, just excellent.
Menus are animated, and scored.
The main audio presentation is English Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s a great mix, with excellent dialogue levels and plenty of use of the surround channels for directional effect. The more physically and aurally violent scenes sound detailed and alive, while quieter moments still have a good amount of ambient sound all around. Finally, the score isn’t anything special, but it’s as well presented as anything else in the mix.
Audio is English-only, while subtitles are available in English and French.
Donnie Brasco – Extended Cut unfortunately falters in the bonus materials department. Aside from a decent making-of featurette, there isn’t much here of any worth. The featurette, Donnie Brasco: Out From The Shadows is new for this release, and it’s remarkable only because it features an interview with the real Joseph Pistone who, despite there still being a mafia contract on his head, agreed to consult with the filmmakers for the production.
Next up is a featurette creatively titled, Original Featurette. It’s the old HBO-style making-of piece we’ve seen many times, which means it does way more promoting the film than offering perspective on the production.
Finally, we have a few trailers and a Photo Gallery, which I actually enjoyed because it was a montage of photos with accompanying dialogue clips from the film. For my money, that beats a silent still gallery any day. Not that that’s saying a whole lot, but still.
Donnie Brasco is a treat for Pacino and Depp fans, and up the alley of anyone who likes a good mob flick. While this extended cut doesn’t break any new ground, I’m more than happy to recommend this DVD based on the excellent video and audio, and even the one new featurette. If you don’t already have a copy of this film on DVD, go get it.
Special Features List
- Donnie Brasco: Out from the Shadows
- Original featurette
- Photo gallery