Norman Mailer told us tough guys don't dance, but in the movies it's mostly tough guys who do dance. We're so leery of close emotional bonds between men that the movies are only comfortable showing them if the guys are cops, jocks, soldiers or Mafioso. Beneath everything else, Donnie Brasco is the story of two men who grow to love one another within the framework of a teacher-student relationship. It's not about sex. It's about need.
The movie opens in a New York coffee shop that's a hangout for the mob. A young guy named Donnie (Johnny Depp) comes in and talks disrespectfully to an older guy named Lefty (Al Pacino). Lefty can't believe his ears: "You're calling me a dumbski? You know who you're talkin' to? Lefty from Mulberry Street!" As if that means anything.
Actually, though, it means a lot to Donnie Brasco, whose real name is Joe Pistone, and who is an undercover agent for the FBI. He gradually wins Lefty's trust, and it becomes clear that Lefty badly needs someone to trust. He has cancer; his son is a junkie; and his mob career is going nowhere. Donnie listens well, and Lefty desperately needs to be a mentor. In another world he would have been your favorite high school teacher.
"If I say you're a friend of mine, that means you're connected," Lefty explains to Donnie. "If I say you're a friend of ours, that means you're a made guy. If I introduce you, I'm responsible for you. Anything wrong with you, I go down."
The movie is based on a 1978 book inspired by the real Donnie Brasco case. (Its author is still living in the government protection program.) The story plays like a companion to GoodFellas, with the same lore, the same fierce Mafia code, the same alternation between sudden violence and weird comedy.
British director Mike Newell, whose biggest hit was Four Weddings and a Funeral, might seem like a strange choice for this material, but the movie is not really about violence or action; it's about friendship. We can see immediately why Lefty is drawn to Donnie, but it takes a little longer to see why Donnie begins to like Lefty. After all, a guy risks his life because he trusts you. You can't help feeling like a rat if you're double-crossing him.
Michael Madsen plays the boss Lefty reports to. He's tall, tough, relentless - and scared, too, because when he gets bumped up a notch, the job includes a $50,000 monthly payment to the guy above him. In this movie Mafia guys don't get away with anything: With them it's work, work, work, just like with everybody else.
Donnie has some ideas for them, including a club in Florida that he thinks might make them some money. But opening night goes wrong, and although they suspect a stoolie in their midst, what they do not suspect is that a rival mob faction was responsible. Every time I see a Mafia movie, I wonder how any Mafiosi can still be alive, given the rate of sudden, violent attrition and the willingness to shoot first and learn the facts later.
The Florida project and the other jobs are a backdrop for the relationship between Donnie and Lefty, which is complicated because the FBI agent has a wife and kids in the suburbs who go for weeks at a time without hearing from him. He can't even tell them what he does (nor would they believe him). "I pretend I'm a widow," his wife tells him.
Eventually all of the threads, personal and criminal, come down to one moment when Lefty either will or will not act on what he knows, or thinks he knows. As the two men face their moment of truth, we are reminded what fine acting the movie contains. We expect it from Mr. Pacino, who is on ground he knows well. For Johnny Depp, Donnie Brasco breaks new ground; he seems a little older here, a little wearier, and he makes the transition from stoolie to friend one subtle step at a time.
The violence in this movie is gruesome (a scene involving the disposal of bodies is particularly graphic). But the movie has many human qualities and contains some fine scenes.
Cast: Al Pacino plays Lefty Ruggiero; Johnny Depp is Joe/Donnie; Michael Madsen is Sonny; Bruno Kirby is Nicky; Anne Heche is Maggie; James Russo is Paulie; and Andrew Parks is Hollman.
Director: Mike Newell
Producers: Mark Johnson, Barry Levinson, Louis DiGiaimo and Gail Mutrux.
Running time: 121 minutes
MPAA rating:R (For some strong graphic violence, pervasive strong language and brief nudity and sexuality).