Written by Bada Bing
" Sometimes is just means forget about it "
- Joe Pistone
“If you're a rat” Lefty says to Donnie “then I'm the biggest fucking mutt in the history of the Mafia”. Donnie Brasco is not technically a rat. A rat is a criminal who in the interests of self-preservation provides information to the authorities - think Henry Hill in Goodfellas or Big Pussy in The Sopranos. Donnie Brasco is not a rat. He’s an undercover FBI agent, real name Joseph Pistone. A mole would be more appropriate – think Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs or Billy Costigan in The Departed.
Based on the book ‘Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia’ by Joseph Pistone, the movie was put on hold in the early nineties over concerns of being too similar to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and a fear of languishing in its shadow. We needn’t worry on this score. As a gangster flick, it is of course clichéd; show me a gangster movie that isn’t, but Donnie Brasco stands tall and proud on its own two feet. What differentiates it from other genre flicks is that not once does it seek to glamourise or romanticise La Cosa Nostra. The gangsters in this flick are not awarded the mythical hero, pop icon status as previous genre characters, instead they’re portrayed as working class stiffs, worrying about how to make this month’s $50,000 to kick up to the bosses or standing outside social clubs in the dead of winter waiting to be ignored by the family boss. In-fighting, back stabbing, paranoia and fear characterise the players in Mike Newell’s gangster flick. Only a few years ahead of The Sopranos, it shows the mundane day to day grafting of lower echelon street hoods.
(1997) - Madalay Entertainment
Directed by Mike Newall
Written by Paul Attanasio
Al Pacino Benjamin 'Lefty' Ruggiero;
Johnny Depp Joseph Pistone / Donnie Brasco;
Michael Madsen Dominck 'Sonny Black' Napolitano;
Anne Heche Maggie Pistone;
Bruno Kirby Nicky Santora;
James Russo Paulie Cersani;
Robert Miano Sonny Red Indelicanto;
Brian Tarantina Bruno Indelicanto;
Rocci Sisto Richie Gazzo;
Željko Ivanek Tim Curly;
Gerry Becker Dean Blandford;
Paul Giamatti FBI Technician;
Tim Blake Nelson FBI Technician;
''Twenty-six guys I clipped,'' Lefty complains. ''Do I get upped?” Al Pacino’s character is a far cry from the ruthless manipulator Michael Corleone; over the top Tony Montana; or the man with a plan Carlito Brigante – “I’m a spoke on wheel” he admits – constrained by the rules of the mob, too loyal to disobey, even when he suspects he’s being sent for, to be whacked. Lefty is a journeyman gangster, a world weary company man loyal to the core, but is ultimately left with just his dick in his hand when the mob prizes are handed out. Disillusioned by the career he’s given everything to, disillusioned too by his personal life – ex-wife lives in the same apartment block, his son’s a junky and he’s got cancer of the prick.
Then along comes Don the Jeweller; smart, earns good money and hangs on every word Lefty says, keen to impress; the son Lefty wishes he had. However, as the viewer we’re in on the joke. “I got him. I got my hooks in the guy” Pistone enthusiastically tells his FBI handler. Yes, Lefty just might be the biggest fucking mutt in the history of the Mafia, but he’s very endearing. There’s pretty much nothing to like about him, yet Pacino makes us really care for him. Maybe it’s because he’s so vulnerable, the writing is on the wall for him from the second he looks up from the café table and wonders who that guy is sat at the bar.
Lefty diligently does his homework on Donnie who’s been undercover for nearly two years, so his story checks out; even Jilly Greca a boss of a crew in the Colombo family vouches for him (or at least “I said I knew him, Left. I didn't say I fucked him” which is pretty close). Satisfied, Lefty introduces Donnie as “a friend of mine” to his wiseguy associates. “I went on the record with you. You know what that means?... You got no fucking idea, my friend. I’m your man now — Jesus Christ can’t touch you because I represent you”. But representation has a flip side too; he becomes responsible for Donnie and will take the fall if Donnie’s not everything he says he is... You see where this is going now, don’t you?
Just in case we didn’t know or had forgotten, we’re reminded in this movie of what a sensational actor Al Pacino is. His final scene is a powerful one. Finally learning the truth about Donnie, Lefty is sent for. Resigned to his fate he tells his unsuspecting girlfriend “If Donnie calls tell him if it was going to be anyone, I'm glad it was him”, before sweetly telling her “Look how beautiful you look” – the last thing of beauty his eyes will ever see. You don’t expect to get teary-eyed over a gangster flick, not when in the same movie you see dead bodies being carved up with a hacksaw. Lefty then, with all the dignity he has left, removes any items of worth on him and leaves them in a draw – even leaving it open a touch so that it will be noticed... well played Al. The whole scene is telling of his acceptance that he’s amounted to all he’s ever going to amount to, which is not a great deal - after all even a pretend rookie gangster was held in higher regard.
Stripping away the wiseguy lingo, the blood and violence and the polyester casual ware, this is ultimately a buddy movie. I would not like to guess how much, but a considerable amount of this movie is focussed solely on Lefty and Donnie, usually sitting down: in a car; on bar stools; in a hospital corridor casually defining bromance a decade and half before everyone else.
The relationship works well because Johnny Depp flexes his acting muscles and refuses to be overshadowed by Al Pacino. Understated, Depp is terrifically convincing at showing how conflicted he is. He watches and partakes in acts of violence in which he needs to stay cool, even blasé, yet is clearly abhorred. He knows that one wrong word, a reaction out of place or even a look has life threatening consequences.
This is no-more evident in the scene in the Japanese restaurant which is filled with humour, tension, violence and guilt. “Is house rules. Please remove your shoes. ‘fraid is necessary” the Japanese Maître d’ says. Donnie’s needs to think fast because he’s got his cassette recorder stashed in his boot. “Get a load of this guy, take off your fucking pants” he says using humour to try and buy some time. The situation escalates and the Japanese Maître d’ is hauled into the bathroom by Sonny Black and the crew promptly kick the shit out of him. Feeling guilty for the beating the innocent guy is getting to protect his secret, Donnie stands back from the action powerless to do anything else. However, when the Maître d’ lands a punch on him, Donnie doesn’t hold back, the adrenaline flows as do the punches and kicks as Donnie stays in character. Afterward Donnie is alone in his apartment listening to the play back of the incident on his concealed recorder, hearing the beating the Maître d’ took. He’s sickened by what has just happened but more so, at how easy the violence came to him. Even in his own head there’s a blurring of the lines between Joe Pistone (Husband, father, G-man) and Donnie Brasco (Jewel thief, mobster, rising star in the Bonanno crime family).
Depp shows us Pistone is intelligent and ruthless in his courtship of Lefty, yet transmits only the diligent apprentice to him and the rest of the crew. The restraint is not so easy in front of Mrs P in his rare forays back to home and hearth though. More relaxed while needing the comfort of his wife and children he seems to lack the mental fortitude required to leave Donnie Brasco in New York. “Seven days a week, I'm out there busting my ass, and this is the shit I come home to” sounding a little too much like Lefty, as he complains.
Unlike most female roles in gangster movies Anne Heshe is given something to get her teeth into. “I pretend I'm a widow. That's how my life makes sense to me” she tells her husband. She even drags him to marriage counselling, providing some light comic relief to the movie. As the counsellor spouts out useless jargon to them about intimacy requests and the role of the pursuer, Pistone wise cracks outside, “You know what my intimacy request is for that guy? He can take the bill he's gonna send me and shove it up his ass”. It’s funny, but further evidence of the street hood mentality permeating into his regular life.
Donnie begins to care for Lefty, even when he is appalled by his merciless violence such as when Lefty puts a bullet in Nicky’s head for being a rat. Donnie tries to explain that Nicky wasn’t a rat, yet Lefty’s response is “Nicky was a rat because Sonny Black says he was a rat”. Donnie recognises how institutionalised his mentor is and pities him for it as opposed to being repulsed by the violence.
The strain of switching personas takes its toll on Pistone “this job is eating me alive” he tells his wife. So too is the friendship he has with Lefty “if I come out, this guy Lefty dies. They're gonna kill him, because he vouched for me”. The betrayal of his wiseguy friend deepens with every action he takes “That's the same thing as if I put the bullet in his head myself”.
As the movie begins to reach its climax, Sonny Black’s crew viciously and mercilessly take out the administration level of Sonny Red’s crew – a vying faction in the same Bonnano crime family – Alphonse "Sonny Red" Indelicato, Lucky Philly and, Big Trin. Civil war is a real threat inside the family and the bodies are expected to start piling up, with Donnie a potential target.
Tension builds further when Donnie is rewarded with the contract to find and kill Bruno Indelicato, Sonny Red’s son who’s gone into hiding. Such is the esteem Donnie is held in, this hit would open the door to becoming a made-guy and access to the inner workings of the family, something the FBI hitherto could only dream of. However giving a mouthy Japanese Maître d’ a kicking is one thing, but putting a bullet in a guy’s head is a little more difficult to justify, even for the FBI.
To ratchet the tension up further, just as Lefty and Donnie track down Bruno, Lefty hits Donnie with a bomb shell. He confronts him with evidence that could blow his cover. The boat Donnie used to host Florida Don, Santo Trafficante, Jr down in Tampa, Lefty learns was an FBI boat. This is the scene in which we see Pacino at his masterful best. He begins by laying it on thick about how loyal he’s been to Donnie, implying the depth to which he’s been betrayed as he slowly pulls out his pistol from his waist band. Donnie suspects his number’s up - only for Lefty to put the barrel to his own head demonstrating just what being the “biggest fucking mutt in the history of the Mafia” actually means. Donnie denies it and although is not totally convincing, Lefty seems too willing to except it his explanation and they move onto the hit on Bruno.
Seconds away from having to pull the trigger flood lights are flicked on and warnings of “FBI! Freeze!” can be heard from a megaphone. Donnie gets the old Vaudeville Hook treatment as the FBI walk him way and abruptly end his assignment.
And so ends Donnie ‘Don the Jeweller’ Brasco. With a mixture of bewilderment and contempt Pistone accepts a medal and cheque for $500 from the Dept of Justice; seemingly the price for putting your life on the line for the US government every day and night for 6 years.
I personally love this movie and I rate it as high as any gangster movie out there. Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggerio is one of Pacino’s greatest performances and I can’t think of better role Jonny Depp’s had. In fact it’s easy to forget how good he can be given the number of Tim Burton weird and wonderful creations he’s played and of course the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
It would be remiss of me to discuss Donnie Brasco without mentioning Michael Madsen. Madsen plays Dominick ‘Sonny Black’ Napolitano the capo of Lefty’s crew, he’s tough, a little sociopathic and like any Michael Madsen character unflinchingly cool. When the boss of the Bonnano family gets whacked Sonny gets promoted and Lefty is bitter that he’s been passed over. However, getting upped is nothing but a headache for Sonny as he needs to come up more and more money for the bosses above him – money runs up uphill, shit runs down.
The real-life Donnie Brasco was actually a lot closer to Sonny Black then to Lefty and Al Pacino’s character is very much an amalgamation of the two.
If I have a problem with this movie, it’s a small one, but a problem nevertheless and it is this: what is Joseph Pistone’s motivation in this movie? He has a loving wife and three beautiful daughters and his dedication to his job puts greater and greater strains on these relationships to the point where he risks losing them. On Christmas day when he should be with his family he’s sitting in a gangster’s house.
He misses his daughter’s First Holy Communion because he’s on assignment in Florida. Even when he does make it back he cuts his visit short because Lefty’s son is in Hospital and he wants to be there to support him. Why does he put his marriage and relationship with his daughters at such risk? Yes he’s an FBI agent but that’s not enough to explain why he would risk it all? What was his motivation to join the FBI in the first place? It would also lend weight to the unlikely bond that he formed with Lefty and other wiseguys. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the movie significantly, but it would have tightened the plot.
This is a gangster flick I never tire of watching. The acting’s great, the plot is full of tension, the schooling we get from Lefty is brilliant: wiseguys don’t wear jeans; wiseguys keep their money in a roll; a wiseguy never pays for his drink; a wiseguy is always right, even when he’s wrong; a wiseguy doesn’t work on Mother’s day; friend of mine/friend of ours and the scene in which Donnie explains the multiple meanings of fuggedaboutit is the stuff of legend.
If you’ve not seen it, watch it. If you have seen it, do yourself a favour and watch it again.
as if there was any other rating I could give :)
Most Notable Gangster Moment:
Shit certainly got real for Donnie when Sonny Black's crew wiped out the administration of Sonny Red's crew - Big Trin; Lucky Phil; and Sonny Red - with shot guns, pistols and an axe. Donnie only witnessed the aftermath, but was required to help dispose of the bodies.
Body Count: 5 (+2)
1. During a truck hiest, Sonny Black was pulled away from a truck driver before he beat him senseless. He however turned around and shot him anyway.
2. Sonny Red was shot several times during am ambush by Sonny Black's crew. Nicky Santora ultimately put the final bullet in his head.
3. In the same shoot out Dominick 'Big Trin' Trinchera was also killed. Sonny Black shot him before he was finished off by Lefty planting an axe in his back.
4. The third member of the Sonny Red crew to be killed in the ambush was Phillip 'Lucky Phil' Giaccone who was shot and killed by Lefty.
5. In the same scene Lefty shot Nicky Santora in the back of the head, as Sonny Black mistakenly believed he was a rat.
+ At the end, we saw Lefty being 'sent for' implying his imminent death. He himself believed he was going to whacked and there's a significant amount of foreshadowing to make this likely.
+ Death off Screen – Carmine Galante – Galante was the street boss of the Bonanno Crime Family; while the actual Boss, Philip 'Rusty' Rastelli was serving out a racketeering sentence. Galante was whacked by Sonny Black, Sonny Red, Big Trin and Bruno Indelicato..
Sonny Black and Nicky Santora both used a Beretta 92FS; Sonny to shoot the truck driver and Nicky to kill Sonny Red
During the ambush of Sonny Red, Lefty and Sonny Black both used sawed-off 12 Gauge Double Barreled Shotguns
Nicky also used a Ithaca 37 shotgun during the Sonny Red ambush
Lefty shot Nicky in the back of the head with a Beretta M1934.
Lefty carried a Smith & Wesson Model 36 and he placed this against his own head during his 'biggest fucking mutt in the history of the Mafia' speech.
When shots from both Sonny Black and Lefty were not enough to put Big Trin down Lefty stuck an axe in his back.
Oringinal cinematic release - 185 (127 minutes run time)
1.5 fucks per minute
Extended cut - 229 (147 minutes run time)
1.6 fucks per minute
Additional footage - 44 (20 minutes)
2.2 fucks per minute
Donnie drove a 1979 Coupe De Ville which Lefty took a part looking for a concealed wire
Lefty had a 1978 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham - he was a big fan of Cadillacs
Nicky had a 1980 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham at a drug deal in Florida
Paulie had a green 1978 Cadillac Sedan DeVille
Sonny Black expressed a preference for Mercedes and he droves a 1975 Mercedes-Benz S-Klasse
Richie Gazzo pulled up in the King's Court parking lot in a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Lefty and Donnie took a guy's 1975 Porsche 911 Carrera Targa to clear his debt