New York, 1978. Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), an undercover FBI agent posing as jeweller Donnie Brasco, wins the trust of disgruntled mobster Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino).
The more involved Joe becomes with Lefty’s local gang, the harder it is for him to reconcile his conflicting loyalties to his family, the FBI and Lefty himself as he is inducted into the codes and “family” values of organised crime.
In a series of riveting scenes, strikingly shot by cinematographer Peter Sova, Lefty schools Donnie in the rules of the wiseguy game: how to dress (polyester), how to carry money (in a roll, never a wallet) and how to tell the difference when Lefty says “a friend of mine” (a connected guy) and “a friend of ours” (a made guy, the highest honour).
In a way, it’s a curious reversal of Pacino’s earlier role in Serpico (1973), in which his character went undercover.
The undercover job, meant to last three months, stretches to six years and nearly destroys the Pistone marriage.
Directed by Mike Newell – a change of pace from Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) – it’s the true 70s-era story of how Pistone went undercover in the mob as a jewel fence. The film is pitched midway between the epic Godfather (1972) and the flash Goodfellas (1990) and develops nicely as Depp finds himself becoming rather fond of his monstrous mentor.
The period setting – a world of tacky shirts, fur collars and plastic lawns – is also beautifully evoked.
Joe Pistone/Donnie Brasco