Mike Newell's "Donnie Brasco" is what I call a Gangster drama with a heart!
This movie is not so much about gangster violence as it is about personal conflicts and inner frustrations of the two lead characters of the story.
Based on a true story, "Donnie Brasco" is about the real life "Operation Donnie Brasco" carried out by the FBI, in which Agent Joseph Pistone went undercover as a Jewel thief expert for infiltrating the Bonanno Crime Family in New York during the late 70s.
Johnny Depp stars as Joseph Pistone who goes undercover as Donnie Brasco and befriends Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero (Al Pacino). Lefty is an aging, low-level mob hitman who is not doing very good on the personal front. He does not seem to be financially well off and has a son who's a drug addict. And as is clear from the film's proceedings, he is an underdog in the family, inspite of having as many as 26 hits in his long mafia history. He seems to have remained where he is, and keeps getting stepped over. In his conversations with Donnie he keeps venting out these grievances and Donnie acts as the good listener.
Donnie, on the other hand, has problems of his own, trying to strike a balance between his family life and his demanding job. Anne Heche plays the Mrs. Pistone who is having a difficult time taking care of their three little daughters without their father around. What adds to her woes is the fact that her husband disappears for days together and does not divulge the details of his job to her.
From time to time, Donnie keeps providing his FBI fellow-men all the information he can about Lefty and the rest of the crew including Sonny Black (Michael Madsen). The story develops so forth.
As a gangster film, "Donnie Brasco" does not succeed as well as some other films out there which excel in quality. However, as a character drama centering around the two lead characters, Lefty and Pistone, it certainly delivers.
Johnny Depp delivers a knock-out performance as Joseph Pistone. He is simply great!
He breathes so much life into the character that you can actually see his gradual transformation into a mobster when he begins to walk and talk like them, as his wife rightly puts in one key scene "you are becoming like them"!
If only he did more meaningful roles like these than all those comic book fantasy characters he plays in those countless Tim Burton films ("Ed Wood" is an exception, of course!)
As for Al Pacino, it is very heartbreaking to see him as a failed gangster for once. This is the man who you've seen in numerous films as the angry, dominating, ruthless gangster who always has things his way. But "Donnie Brasco" is quite an exception. Here, he is the loser, who knows he is one and is constantly talking about being stepped over and sidelined all the time by others younger than him. He is tired of getting stuck at the same position inspite of a 30 year old life in the mafia and a commendable number of 'hits' under his belt.
Quite a few notable scenes in which Pacino is simply fabulous..one that comes to mind is the scene in which Sonny Black gets promoted or "upped" as they call it. Pacino's reaction is so natural and convincing, it instantly makes you empathize with him. Plenty of such moments and episodes in this film prove that Pacino delivers one of his finest acting performances in this film.
As for the supporting cast: Quite nice, all of them. Michael Madsen is great, but we are so used to seeing him in gangster roles that it doesn't quite come off as anything different.
Anne Heche does a pretty decent job as the frustrated wife of the busy FBI agent.
Patrick Doyle's original score is superb and melancholic and suits the mood of the film.
Paul Attanasio's screenplay based on Pistone's book "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia" is pretty good, but one can't help but think that it certainly leaves a little to be desired.
Mike Newell directs well and pulls off a genre he had never attempted, pretty successfully.
"Donnie Brasco" is a fine film which succeeds more as a character drama than as a gangster flick. Absolutely "fuh-get about it"! ;)