Donnie Brasco Review

Mobsters and undercover sting operations are no stranger to the movies, nor to the filmography of Al Pacino. But Donnie Brasco immediately feels a little different to its contemporaries. Mike Newell of Four Weddings and a Funeral directing fame seems almost short-tempered with the genre at hand. He marks Johnny Depp and Pacino, the two leads throughout this crime-oriented feature, with a satisfying wave of the hand that gives the pair a free rein to explore eponymous lead Brasco (Depp) and Benjamin Ruggiero (Pacino). The old hand of the latter man guiding what was at the time a new generation of potential mobster leads. It is not the faith presented by Pacino but the confidence of Depp to take on this new genre that strikes most entertainingly of all with Donnie Brasco.

Struggling greatly at times against the tide of influence that comes from casting Pacino, Donnie Brasco finds itself stuck in a heavy time for the mobster genre. The Sopranos was just around the corner, Casino was still lingering on and a double-bill of Fargo and Hard Eight had been released just a year prior. There wasn’t oversaturation, but there was a difficulty in standing out. Pacino is the pull; Depp is the skill. Sincerely convincing chemistry between the pair elevates the material, but not by much. As great as some of the moments are in Donnie Brasco, they are just that. Moments. From Depp and Pacino working a fake diamond sting to the end of it all that reveals gruelling undercover work is a necessity for officers pulling apart crime associations.

Fortunately for Donnie Brasco, these moments are frequent. Newell is unable to keep away from the allure of the genre highs that have passed him by, but the homage and aesthetic is a comfortable one. Nothing that will set the world alight or shake up the genre, but a very dependent piece that embodies the nostalgia for the mid-70s and early 80s, but also a desire to look deeper into the meaning of family in the world of crime. That is where the interest for Donnie Brasco lies, in the relationships found between the likes of Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby. Some characters are no more than the snakeskin boots they wear, like Robert Miano’s portrayal of Sonny Red, but the presence they have on the screen is more important than anything they can say or do.

Newell takes to a lower rung of the crime ladder, but still has all the highs of an expectedly well-tuned crime thriller. Donnie Brasco manages to convey both the respectful presence of a higher-up and the awe and extravagance of those even higher. A succession of pedestals that the audience is constantly reminded of, a barrage of solid portrayals and intense moments. They are paced well and will leave an audience satisfied, but also reminded of the better avenues of the genre. Of the influence Pacino had on The Godfather, the dynamic Depp and his sparring partner bring here are similar to that of Goodfellas’ Henry Hill and Jimmy Conway, but with less depth and quicker pacing. That isn’t necessarily a bad angle, but Donnie Brasco knows it cannot role with the heavy hitters.

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