Movie Review: Donny Brasco

© 1997 Dan Heller

Quick Review: Good, compelling drama. Great for those interested in strong character development. (There's mild violence and language, but if you can read this fuckin' review, there's nothing in the movie you couldn't handle. :-)

Synopsis: Joe Pistone is an undercover FBI agent who, in the late 1970's worked his way into a typical (i.e., realistic) NYC mob, all the while collecting evidence. The more involved he gets, however, the more he transforms himself into the role he was only supposed to be acting.

Review: This movie really worked for me for two reasons. First, Johnny Depp continues to amaze me in his development as an actor. He can go from one character to the next, each of which being completely convincing; I quickly forget it's Depp and immerse myself into the character he's playing. This is precisely why he is one of the few actors around today who could play the same type of role in a movie. The second reason I liked the movie is because I can identify with that premise so strongly: in order to give your best performance, whether as an actor, or as an employee for a company, or as a mob gangster, or as a lawman, you must immerse yourself into role and responsibilities required by it. Sometimes, this means assuming characteristics that are not necessarily "you" -- or worse, transforming into something you might not want to be -- in order to accomplish the longer-term goal. For some things, the means justify the ends, and many people would never accept that. I've had to do that, and I felt (and still feel) the great cognitive dissonance of having to judge yourself on whether you feel you did the right thing. Basco takes the daring jump of trying to convince us that Johnny Depp's character not only transforms into the mob role he's supposed to be assuming, but also feels remorse for doing so.

My personal attachment to the movie aside, the movie works very well in its intended manner. As Joe Pistone, the real-life FBI Agent who infiltrates a mob family in NYC, Depp's character assumes the role of Donny Brasco, a Jeweler. Basco befriends a mob member (Lefty Ruggiero, played by Al Pacino), who teaches Donny the ropes on being a "wise guy." As the relationship progresses, Joe's identity moves closer to Donny's, not just because of his feeling of dedication to his job or for the protection of american justice, but because he begins to identify with Lefty. He gets to know his family, his background, his value systems, and his dreams for himself and his family. Both men share philosophies on life: Why are we doing this? For what? We are given these little crumbs throughout the movie, and as the two become closer and closer, the crumbs amount to a healthy slice of cake. It seems that they might eventually meet in the middle of their value systems, even though they are coming from the oppsite sides of crime and the law. They've both dedicated their lives to their respective professions, and what do they get for it? Nuthin'. No money, no recognition, no appreciation. Just a life of always looking over your shoulder.

At the expense of Joe's real life family, which is on the verge of breaking apart because of Joe's job, Joe continues doing what he knows he needs to do: not just continue with the mob, but to continue his separation physically and emotionally from his family. In one particular scene, Joe is arguing with his wife about how the family is breaking up and acknowledges that he is well aware of the problem. What's more, he had earlier said that he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't think she could handle it. So, he knows what he's doing. But when the problem comes to a head and it seems as though his marriage and family life may end, rather than trying to remedy the problem, or to even give temporary solice, he ignores it completely and walks away. What was worked so well about this was that we knew that he was completely transformed into the mob character (he even says so), and we knew that he knew he was planning on coming back to them. The real question was whether he was going to lose that grip on reality.

Joe's transformation into Donny is the main objective of the movie, and the relationship with Lefty gives it meaning and depth. There are other events that support the authenticity of the transformation, like the language, the "lingo" and the violence that is the mob life. In a few scenes, Donny not only witnesses extreme violence for what appears to be his first time, but eventually has to participate. The one scene that might be uncomfortable for some is when they discuss having to cut up bodies so they won't be found... and then they get out the hacksaws. Don't worry, it's nothing worse than we've seen in Little Shop of Horrors (the musical comedy starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin). It's just that the more serious context here makes it more gripping. As Joe becomes more acclimated to Donny, we really begin to wonder whether he loses his hold on reality, whether he might get in too deep, and either get "upped" (promotion through assasination) or "offed" (killed).

This movie, like others I've seen recently (is this a trend?) doesn't pretend to give you any surprises. While you can't necessarily predict what's going to happen, the result is well within the possible scenarios. And you never find yourself wondering how it's going to work out, either; you are more absorbed in the relationships and the events that affect them.
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