20 February 2007 | bkoganbing
The Biggest Mutt In The History Of The Mafia
With only one real scene of violence and mayhem in the film, Donnie Brasco relies far more on character development in a story of two men and the planned betrayal of one by another in the line of duty.
Johnny Depp plays real life FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone who infiltrates the Bonano crime family through the good offices of Lefty Ruggiero, a small time Mafia button man played by Al Pacino. During the five years undercover, Pistone who used the alias of Donnie Brasco was responsible for about 200 federal indictments because of the work he did. It took a terrible strain on him and his family as the film so aptly demonstrates.
It must have been like old home week for Johnny Depp who made his acting bones playing a youthful undercover cop in the television series 21 Jump Street. But the difference between Officer Tom Hanson going undercover for a couple of weeks at some high school and agent Pistone living and working with the wise guys for five years afraid of being found out is the difference between Donald Duck and Donald Trump.
Depp's performance as Pistone/Brasco is conveyed as much by body language and closeups as with dialog. He'd like very much to return to his wife and three daughters and live a normal life, but the demands of the job make it impossible. According to Wikipedia's article on Pistone he was uniquely qualified for his undercover assignment having lived and grown up among wise guys in New Jersey. He was familiar with all the Mafia culture and could blend in easily. The strain shows on him in his scenes with wife Anne Heche, only someone with a real gift for acting could make those scenes so real.
Depp is matched by Al Pacino as the luckless Lefty Ruggiero. In the Mafia code he vouches for Depp and if Depp betrays trust in any way, Pacino's marked for death.
Lefty Ruggiero is a hired killer with as he boasts 27 contract kills to his credit. Yet he's also a family man with a lot of problems as is Depp. Even though the man is in fact evil, Pacino does make him a likable sort. It's why Depp is dreading the day he's out from undercover because it means certain death for a man who's grown to be his friend.
Except when the crew that Depp and Pacino are part of do ambush a rival group before in fact they do it to them, Donnie Brasco is a fairly non violent film for a gangster story. Donnie Brasco emphasizes character development and a good script as opposed to bloody mayhem.
I think you'll like the story about a man who turned a friend into the biggest mutt in the history of the Mafia.