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Retro Review: Donnie Brasco

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Martin Scorsese didn’t invent the mafia movie, he merely turned it into pop culture. Even though Coppola’s “The Godfather” is the obvious choice as the possibly be-all, end-all mafia film, Scorsese influenced a generation of directors with his fast paced and more popcorn-ish portrayal of mafia figures. Donnie Brasco is a copy of that portrayal.

The movie stars Johnny Depp as Joe Pistone a.k.a. Donnie Brasco, who is undercover in the NY mob and gets set up by a nobody in the form of Al Pacino. Pacino does a complete 180 on his usual mafia characters meaning he’s not the “calm and in control” Michael Corleone..instead he’s a bumbling loser who is on the lowest rung of the ladder of command.

The film is okay, and by okay I mean just watchable. They try too hard to make it like a Scorsese movie with the domestic issues and the neon colored mafia guys, but it really just comes off as very cheap. Pacino and Depp do their best with the material, but in the end…you can tell they are trying to squeeze emotion out of a dry sponge. They are creating their own motivation, because it’s obvious to me that director Mike Newell didn’t give them much.

When I saw this movie way back in 97, I remembered that I liked it a lot, but with a decade later re-watch, I can find its flaws pretty easily. The real problem is that you can’t get into any of the characters. In a movie like GoodFellas, the people were cold blooded killers, but you sort of liked them in a weird way. They weren’t one dimensional. In this film, it’s more like they read “How to be a gangster for dummies”. It’s a weak representation for what are generally fascinating people.

The movie is interesting fo the sole fact that it is a true story, and Anne Heche actually plays the “in the dark” F.B.I. wife pretty well. They had some decent chemistry, even if it was only made up of them hating each other. Whatever happened to that crazy chick Anne Heche?

The best scene has to be the final scene with Pacino, as he prepares for his possibly demise in a calm and collective manner, kissing his wife goodbye and telling her “not to wait up.” Then he quietly leaves all his jewelry behind in a drawer and gently walks out the door. That is probably the most touching and best part of the film. Take a look at it, just for fun…but never forget the roots of the tree are much, much stronger than the branches.

-Ben

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