In the tradition of such films as Serpico, Goodfellas, and even The Departed, Donnie Brasco is another worthy addition to the gangster canon. You have a necessary mainstay in Al Pacino, playing the veteran and streetwise hit man Lefty. He’s been around and is claimed to have 26 “whacks” to his name. One fateful day he took Donnie under his wing and the two became real pals. Better than that they were family and Lefty vouched for Donnie, bringing him into his life and his business. It’s just that his business revolves being a member of one of the mob families.
The story is twofold, however, because Donnie Brasco’s real name is Joe Pisone, and he is an undercover agent for the FBI. However, in order to do his job he has to be gone for months on end. He checks in and has a tape recorder on his person, but for all intent and purposes, he is a member of the mob. They think he’s one of them which Pistone’s superiors are delighted about, but he also begins to relate to them and see himself pulled into their reality.
Long months away from his wife and kids do not help their marriage or his family life. Whenever he drops in their life, he’s cold and detached. His wife expects something more. She wants her husband back, but all he has for her is a fiery temper courtesy of the crowd he hangs out with now.
He follows their crowd from New York, down to Florida trying to get a cut of the land there, but after getting ousted by the cops, they must head dejectedly back to New York. Several times Joe almost gets his cover blown, but even more perturbing he stops checking in with his superiors. His wife is bearing the toll of his absence and tries to content herself with thoughts of him being dead. It’s easier to take.
Meanwhile, young hopeful Sonny (Michael Madsen), with the help of his cronies, knocks off his rival and things are looking up for the whole lot of them. Donnie knows however that there will come a point where he will be pulled out and that will be the end of it. He tries to give his new found friend and confidante Lefty a way out. He offers money to his pal, in a last-ditch effort to get the vet to leave this life behind. Instead, they follow through with the hit that they’re supposed to.
The irony of this story is that Joe Pisone gets a medal and a $500 check for his services to his country. He spent however many months and years in this high tension, high-stress environment and that’s what he gets. You can see him scoffing at it. His marriage is essentially shot to hell. He lost one of the best friends he had and that’s the end of it.
It’s great having Al Pacino in this film because he along with Robert De Niro will always embody the gangster to me. Except instead of playing the steely Michael Corleone, he’s the more world wearied type. Bruno Kirby sounded so much like Joe Pesci that it was almost uncanny to me. And it was a pleasure to see Johnny Depp in such a role since he is so often remembered for his quirkier roles. Here he truly seems to show his dramatic acting chops, and the camaraderie between him and Pacino is palpable in their scenes.