Directed By: Mike Newell
Witten By: Paul Attansio (screenplay), Richard Woodley and Joseph D. Pistone (book)
This is a really dull movie made about an awesome and incredible story. In a nutshell that is why we own it. I saw this movie in the theater in 1997 but didn’t own it till a couple of years ago after reading the book. I am a big fan of any mafia/organized crime film and have always been fascinated by the real history it has in our country. Donnie Brasco is a big part of that history and a truly amazing story. Despite the efforts to cast the right people for this movie I think what they ultimately came up with wasn’t that good and could have been done much better.
There are plenty of problems with this film but I think one of the main problems is that there’s too much to the story to squeeze it into a two-hour time frame the way they did. Joseph D Pistone was undercover as Donnie Brasco for six years. The movie combines a combination of different stories from throughout those six years into one part of it, his time with Lefty Ruggiero. Another problem is the theme of the film and how it exagerates certain aspects of the story. One thing that Pistone makes perfectly clear in his book is that there is no “code of honor” in the actual mob. He says their portrayal in films is mostly Hollywood stuff and that in fact these guys are just scheming thieves and killers who will do anything to make money. Pistone never gets that close to crossing sides either, he was always in control of who he was and what he was doing.
Pistone first infiltrated the Columbo family in New York as Donnie Brasco and then moved on more seriously into the Bonanno family. After his six years working undercover he got over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of organized crime members. What I find interesting is how he actually managed to do any of this because he was on such a tight leash by the FBI. He never actually broke any laws because that would have jeopardized his ability to get convictions. Yet he managed to infiltrate the mob despite this. I think a lot of it had to do with how stupid the men he infiltrated actually were. Ruggiero specifically was a real moron, yet still a very dangerous man. Pistone wasn’t on his own as much as the movie implies either, he often worked with other agents who were also working undercover. Even some of them were found to be undercover yet Brasco managed to continue getting deeper involved. It really is an amazing story and Pistone is a true badass. He had to make many sacrifices to do his job and he has had to continue living in danger even until today.
I don’t think Mike Newell had any business being in charge of a film like this, the project should have been given to a more talented director. I think casting Al Pacino in a mafia film is an idea that looks really good on paper for obvious reasons but I don’t think it really went well in this film. He is playing the part of a pathetic kind of mobster that spends most of the film bitching about this and that. Johnny Depp is OK in the movie but I wouldn’t call him exceptional. Casting Anne Heche in the female lead is an idea that only made sense in the late 90s for about 10 minutes. I think the best part in this movie goes to Michael Madsen, but Michael Madsen is awesome in everything he does. Mr. Blonde is one of the most ultra cool actors ever and he didn’t make enough movies in his prime. There are a lot of other notable actors in smaller roles all throughout the film including Paul Giamatti, Zeljko Ivanek, and Tim Blake Nelson. Bruno Kirby is awful and has way too much screen time in the film.
This film received critical acclaim when it came out but I have seriously never understood why. As a big fan of anything with the mafia in it I have always thought this was a dull movie and one of the weaker films of the genre. This movie isn’t dark enough to be a good mob film and there isn’t enough violence. With an R rating you have to take advantage of certain opportunities and this film doesn’t, it has no edge to it. I don’t think this movie is worth anybodies time, but the story is. In lieu of endorsing this film I would like to instead encourage everybody to get a copy of the book and read what really happened.
NEXT MOVIE: Donnie Darko (2001)