Mike Newell’s 1997 mob classic Donnie Brasco is based on the true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone, a man who went undercover into the New York City mafia to help get evidence to indite members of the organization. Even though Newell wasn’t a veteran of crime cinema compared to someone like Martin Scorsese, he made what is to me one of the very best films in the genre of the past 20 years.
Johnny Depp stars as Pistone alias “Donnie Brasco” also known as “Don The Jeweler” a non wiseguy that specializes in stolen jewelry. One day he’s approached by a mobster named “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) at a local mafia hangout and asked to appraise a diamond. One glance at the stone from Donnie and he knows it’s a fake or “fugazee” and tells Lefty to get lost. Feeling insulted by Donnie’s abrupt dismissal, Lefty explains to him that he’s a made man and that he should be paid respect. This comical, emotional misunderstanding oddly leads to the two becoming fast friends.
Lefty introduces his new pal Donnie to his crew led by “Sonny Black” Napolitano (Michael Madsen) and his fellow mobsters Nicky (Bruno Kirby) and Paulie (James Russo). They all are soldiers of the Bonnano crime family. Their main boss is “Sonny Red” Indelicato (Robert Miano) who is flanked by his goon son Bruno (Brian Tarentina) at all times. It’s clear that Sonny Black has contempt for Sonny Red but is stuck taking orders from the mook because of politics.
With the OK from Sonny Black, Lefty and Donnie begin working together and we get to see how these lower level mobsters earn their money through hijacking trucks, extortion and sometimes killing. While Donnie is out risking his life every day, he’s had to leave his family behind. His wife Maggie (Anne Heche) and three daughters must live without him and it causes a heartbreaking conflict in his life. He only returns home for brief breaks from the job and we see the anger and dissapointment it causes. The scenes with Depp and Heche are very nicely acted as she gives such a strong realism to her native New Jersey girl character conveying how his work has ruined their loving relationship.
Without a lot of money coming in from his men, Sonny becomes desperate and angry. Donnie sees this outburst as a chance to gain more trust from him and lets Sonny and the others in on a potential money making scheme. He explains his home turf in Florida is wide open and he has a contact there that owns a closed down restaraunt/bar that could be a great business opportunity for them. Donnie and Lefty take a trip down and meet up with Richie Gazzo (Rocco Sisto), who happens to be Pistone’s fellow undercover agent posing as a goofy schlub. The spot he “owns” is called King’s Court, a rundown medieval themed nightclub/restaraunt.
Soon after Sonny and the other guys join Lefty and Donnie in sunny Florida for a little vacation. While there they hold a party for Trafficante (Val Avery) a respected mafia boss who lives in town. The event, set up by Donnie through the FBI, is held on a government owned boat that was used for another operation. This secret could be potentially deadly for him if the mobsters find out. Still, things are kept under wraps and go so smoothly Sonny decides to take Donnie on as one of his own soldiers, leaving poor Lefty in the cold. They also go ahead with renovating King’s Court and it becomes a very popular joint. Trouble suddenly comes into paradise when the police raid it one night after which Sonny and his men including Donnie are thrown in jail. It’s there they realize someone they know has ratted them out and begin trying to figure out who it is.
When they get out of jail and arrive back in New York, the tensions between Sonny Black and his rival Sonny Red escalate with both sides planning hits on the other. This leads to one of the film’s most violent sequences as Donnie witnesses first hand how the mob operates through murdering their own. With the dangerous life he’s leading in the crime world and his failing marriage pulling him apart, Donnie must try to find a way out of his situation without getting himself or his friend Lefty killed.
Donnie Brasco is a very entertaining crime film as well as an equally excellent character study of what made Pistone such an exceptional undercover agent. He had a very cool, calm demeanor and did very well under pressure. This earned him a reputation as being trustworthy and he almost a became a made man because he was so good at his job. The story is also a statement on the lengths Pistone went to help the government take down the mob and how his efforts in the end really were not appreciated. His rewards for risking his life in the end were minor. Pistone later had a contract placed on his life and was forced to enter Witness Protection following the busts of the crime members he put away, including Lefty.
The performances in this film are just superb. Depp’s portrayal of Pistone/Brasco is one of his best and Al Pacino gives an equally brilliant turn as Lefty, the veteran wiseguy who comes across like a lovable but neglected dog. Michael Madsen’s Sonny Black is a dangerous, volatile mobster but also has a friendly side and is one of Donnie’s main supporters after Lefty. There’s a fun cameo by Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson as two FBI agents who set up one of the film’s funniest monologues about a slang term used often by the Italian mobsters.