Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Mike Newell|
|Produced by||Louis DiGiaimo
|Written by||Paul Attanasio|
|Based on||Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia
by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley
|Music by||Patrick Doyle|
Mark Johnson Productions
|Distributed by||TriStar Pictures|
|Running time||126 minutes|
The film is based on the true story of Joseph D. Pistone, an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the Bonanno crime family in New York City during the 1970s, under the alias Donnie Brasco, aka, "The Jewel Man". Brasco maneuvers his way into the confidence of an aging hit-man, Lefty Ruggiero, who vouches for him. As Donnie moves deeper into the Mafia, he realizes that not only is he crossing the line between federal agent and criminal, but also leading his friend Lefty to an almost certain death.
|This section needs an improved plot summary. (April 2013)|
In 1978, FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone is assigned to infiltrate the New York City–based Bonanno crime family. He calls himself Donnie Brasco and poses as an expert jewel thief from Vero beach. Brasco is befriended by Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero—a low-level, mob hit-man whose personal life is in tatters—and Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano, the captain of Lefty's crew.
Lefty cannot make enough money and he is continually passed over for promotion within the crime family. His son is a drug addict. He constantly reminds Brasco of his growing disillusionment with his life after his having spent 30 years as a wiseguy killing 26 people and little to show for it.
In Donnie, at least, Lefty sees a young protégé who might be able to succeed where he failed. He takes Donnie under his wing. Donnie quickly becomes accepted by the other family members, as an "associate" (the lowest Mafia rank describing people who have criminal ties to the Mafia but are not actual members) and is later nearly officially inducted into the mob as a "made man."
The longer Pistone plays the role of a gangster, the more he finds himself actually becoming Donnie Brasco during his rare off-duty hours. His long absences and change in personality drive a wedge between Pistone and his wife and three children, knowing that the slightest mistake in his performance as a mobster could result in death to him and his family.
In addition, Pistone has come to regard Lefty as a close and trusted friend. He knows that when the day finally comes that the FBI arrests his mob associates, he will be ending Lefty's life as surely as if he himself had killed him.
Louis DiGiaimo, who worked as a casting director for Barry Levinson, was a childhood acquaintance of Joseph D. Pistone, and served as a consultant for his book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia. Once the book came out, Levinson's company Mandalay Pictures purchased the rights, with screenwriter Paul Attanasio set to write the script. Stephen Frears would direct and Tom Cruise would play Pistone/Brasco. In 1991, the film was postponed due to the release of Goodfellas, as the producers felt there was not enough room for two hyperrealistic Mafia films. When the project was resurrected in 1996, Frears was replaced with Mike Newell, and Johnny Depp was cast as Pistone/Brasco. Al Pacino was the only actor kept from the first attempt to make the film. Pistone was hired as a consultant, helping Depp and Pacino develop their characters.
Donnie Brasco has received critical acclaim. Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes reports that 87% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 55 reviews, with an average score of 7.8/10, making the film a "Certified Fresh" on the website's rating system. At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 76, based on 21 reviews, which indicates "Generally favorable reviews".
Entertainment Weekly called it a "wonderfully dense, clever, and moving gangland thriller," and gave it an A–, also praising Paul Attanasio's screenplay as "a rich, satisfying gumbo of back stabbing, shady business maneuvers, and mayhem." Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times gave it three and a half stars out of four. Siskel and Ebert gave Donnie Brasco "two thumbs up." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praised the film, saying that "Donnie Brasco is one terrific movie." Mick LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle gave the film a positive review and said that Donnie Brasco was "a first class Mafia thriller."
Critics praised Depp's performance especially: a Salon.com review hailed Depp's performance as "sensational." New York Magazine called him "graceful" and found his acting highly believable: "We can believe that the mob might take him for a tough, ambitious young hood—he has the wariness and the self-confidence that creates an aura."
According to Charles Taylor, writing in Salon.com, both Pacino and Depp are "in top form"; remarking on Pacino's frequent cooperations with younger actors (Sean Penn, John Cusack), Taylor called Donnie Brasco "the best in this series of duets" and singled out Pacino's skills: "His final scene is all the more heartbreaking for the economy of gesture and feeling he brings it. It's an exit that does justice to both the actor and the role, and it leaves an ache in the movie." Entertainment Weekly reserved its highest praise for Pacino: "If Donnie Brasco belongs to any actor, though, it's Al Pacino."
American Film Institute Lists
The movie grossed $41,909,762 in the US, and an estimated $83,000,000 internationally.