DONNIE BRASCO (director: Mike Newell; screenwriters: from the book "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia" by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley/Paul Attanasio; cinematographer: Peter Sova; editor: Jon Gregory; music: Patrick Doyle; cast:  Al Pacino (Benjamin 'Lefty' Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco/Joe Pistone), Michael Madsen (Sonny Black), Bruno Kirby (Nicky), James Russo (Paulie), Anne Heche (Maggie Pistone), Gerry Becker (Agent Dean Blandford FBI), Robert Miano (Sonny Red), Brian Tarantina (Bruno),  Rocco Sisto (Richard 'Richie' Gazzo), Zeljko Ivanek (Tim Curley); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Louis DiGiaimo/Mark Johnson/Barry Levinson/Gail Mutrux; Columbia Tri-Star; 1997)

"A gritty and humorous crime drama about an undercover cop infiltrating the Mafia."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A gritty and humorous crime drama about an undercover cop infiltrating the Mafia and watching in distress as his marriage and life go on the rocks. The film keys in on the thankless job of doing undercover work and the toll it takes on the agent and his loved ones. It's based on the true story of Joe Pistone, and is smartly adapted by Paul Attanasio from the 1989 book "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia" by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley. British director Mike Newell ("The Awakening"/"Enchanted April"/"Pushing Tin") sets it in 1978 in the Little Italy section of Manhattan and does a nice job in his character study, getting the period details right and creating a realistic unglamorous wiseguy atmosphere. Though he never gives the film a profundity, as the director prefers not to penetrate the inner depths to find out what motivates one to be an undercover man, yet the film still gives us a rich picture of how there becomes a blur between the good and bad guys. Al Pacino gives a powerhouse performance as a proud but groveling low-level aging Mafia soldier, while Johnny Depp gives a superb understated performance as the tortured soul FBI undercover operative who learns the hard way of the inhumanity shared by both the Mafia and the FBI. This is one of the more entertaining Mafia films, right up there with GoodFellas, Mean Streets and The Godfather.

Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino) is a loyal foot soldier for 30 years, repeatedly mentioning he has done 26 hits but still gets no respect from the Mob boss, Sonny Red (Robert Miano), and doesn't have much money. He aspires to rise in the ranks, but realizes that's not in the cards when he's passed over for Sonny. Living on Mulberry Street with his obedient second wife and junkie son, Lefty chooses to spend time mostly with the boys in their lounge club. There Lefty meets a young man, Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), who deals in jewels as a fence, and becomes so impressed with his knowledge of what's a fake that he introduces him to the other soldiers as his friend. Those closest to Lefty are tough guy leader Sonny Black (Michael Madsen), the suspicious hard-ass Paulie (James Russo) and the loudmouth affable Nicky (Bruno Kirby). Taken under Lefty's wing, supposedly could lead Donnie to one day becoming a Made Guy in the family. Lefty, as he schools his protege to wear polyester and carry his money in a roll, never realizes that Donnie is actually FBI agent Joseph Pistone, who is taping them and that his family lives in the suburbs of New Jersey.

The question is how long can Donnie do this dirty job, meant to be for three months but goes on for six years, without cracking, getting caught, going over to the Mafia side or losing his frustrated loyal wife Maggie (Anne Heche). Sometimes it's months before Donnie can see his wife and three little girls, and the family is coming apart over the tension caused by such a dangerous and time-consuming job.

Things come to a head when Donnie's FBI handlers set up a deal for Donnie and their other undercover agent (Rocco Sisto) in Florida to take over a beach nightclub for the mob in order to take down another mob family (the Santo Trafficante family), but the club gets raided by the police. This starts a gang war and the rub-out of a rat. Now the FBI must figure out a way to get Donnie out alive and end the operation. For Donnie, it's a trying experience because his disclosure as a cop means Lefty, his best friend and someone he has grown fond of, will be executed by the Mob for promoting a rat. 

In the end credits we learn that the undercover operation resulted in over 200 indictments and that the real-life Joe Pistone today has an assumed name (living with his family under the Witness Protection Program) and a $500,000 contract on his life still in effect. The Mafia family was supposedly the infamous Bonanno family of Brooklyn.

REVIEWED ON 1/30/2010       GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"