When Mike Newell's relatively low-key mob movie was released in 1997, Al Pacino and Johnny Depp were at very different junctures than they are today.
Donnie BrascoDirector: Mike Newell
Cast: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Anne Heche, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby
Distributor: Mill Creek Entertainment
US Release Date: 2014-07-22
The Blu-ray of Donnie Brasco has no special features; it contains only the theatrical cut of the film (an extended cut is also available on disc), without commentary, deleted scenes, or anything else. Apart from a good transfer of a good film, a Blu-ray of this movie reissued from Sony's back catalog in 2014 provides only additional context for the careers of its stars, Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. When Mike Newell's relatively low-key mob movie was released in 1997, both actors were at very different junctures than they are today.
In 1997, Pacino had certainly earned his status as a legend, and still starring in mainstream movies regularly. However, at the time he seemed to be experiencing a bit of post-Oscar hangover, if only in the sense that had yet (and has yet) to receive a follow-up nomination after his Scent of a Woman win. Movies like Carlito's Way and Heat could easily turn up on a best-of-Pacino reel today, but at the time he was often accused indulging familiar shtick—shouting and lipsmacking; basically everything he does in Heat—at the expense of subtlety. His role in Donnie Brasco, as small-time mafia lifer Lefty, showed that he could still rein in his persona—and also represented his first real old-man role. He infuses Lefty with the weariness he'd make more explicit in movies like Insomnia and People I Know half a decade later.
Around that same time, Johnny Depp would be hitting a major career landmark. Back in 1997, though, he had settled into a career as a recognizable mid-tier leading man with eclectic taste. Since Donnie Brasco, he's become one of the biggest movie stars in the world—and backlashed for doing basically what he's done his entire career: mix big studio movies, alienating indies, eccentric tics, and actorly restraint sometimes, somehow, within the same project. His performance in Donnie Brasco is now held up as an example of the kind of great work he used to do, before he gave in to his once-celebrated weirdness, even though he did plenty of weird shtick before and after Donnie Brasco, and gave a similarly modulated performance much later, in Michael Mann's Public Enemies.
Regardless, his performance as the titular jewel thief who's actually undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone is terrific. There's a reason the movie is named after his alias and not his real name: logging so many hours undercover, Pistone must keep his mafia persona on hand at all times. During his rare off-duty hours, his mafia play-acting seeps into life with his wife (Anne Heche) and kids, a smart bit of acting-within-acting from Depp, even if the movie leans on this idea a bit heavily as it wears on.
The distraught-family material gives Depp some good scenes to play; the material itself, with Heche going through the usual cop's-wife motions of worry, nagging, and distance, is boilerplate. It's dispiriting, but doesn't much matter in the end; Pacino and Depp are the core of Donnie Brasco, even though the movie itself is solidly made. During one extended walk-and-talk between the two stars, a long-ish take is jarringly interrupted by shutter shots, snapping the audience out of the momentarily illusion that the two men are on a similar level. It's easy, the movie points out again and again, to get lost in the criminal world.
Newell progresses the film along slowly, less urgently than a lot of undercover cop pictures, but that's the idea; the slower pace gives Lefty and Donnie time to develop a palpable relationship, becoming something like real friends, even when Donnie/Joseph has to witness (and not stop) some horrible crimes. There is violence and tension in the movie, but it also pays attention to the details, as in its most famous scene: a parsing of the many ways to use the phrase "fuhgeddaboudit"—real-life acting that doubles as a lesson in underworld grammar and diction.
By staying intimate, Donnie Brasco scuffs up the glamour of mafia movies; classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas may show spectacular rises and/or tragic falls, but they offer enough high opera, power, and exhilaration to draw you into their seamy worlds. That's part of their seductive power. Donnie Brasco, it must be said, is not The Godfather or Goodfellas, but its more workmanlike approach has its own rewards.
One of them is the opportunity to see two wonderful performers intersect. Depp would go on to play seedier law-enforcement types in From Hell and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, then cultivate an outlaw image as Captain Jack Sparrow and John Dillinger (he's also playing Whitey Bulger in a movie due out next year). Pacino hasn't played many gangsters since Donnie Brasco's release in 1997. He's slipped into the nefarious mentor figure several times (in that respect, his other 1997 film, The Devil's Advocate, better predicts his later-period career arc), a couple of villains, and a similarly two-bit hood in the wandering Stand Up Guys. But his exit from the film feels like a farewell of sorts: not to acting, of course, but to the time in his life where he could play a career criminal. This alone makes Donnie Brasco a vital entry in its subgenre.