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).
Instead of starting with a big bang, Donnie Brasco begins by cannily observing Lefty in his element, drinking coffee in the afternoon at a restaurant with three young wiseguys; affable Nicky (Bruno Kirby), hard-ass Paulie (James Russo) and take-charge Sonny Black (a superb Michael Maden).
“Ain’t no way a Lincoln is better than a Cadillac,” says Lefty, just to start something. “Fuggedaboudit”. To Lefty, “fuggedaboudit” can mean a good thing like “Raquel Welch’s ass, fuggedaboudit!” or a bad thing like, “Buy a pair of slacks not jeans – this ain’t a rodeo, fuggedaboudit!”.
Or sometimes, as Donnie tells the FBI agents who are listening to his wire, it can simply mean “forget about it”.
Catching sight of a stranger at the bar, Lefty learns he is Donnie Brasco, a jeweller from Florida, and tries to lay off a diamond ring on him for $8,000. Lefty has major gambling debts and needs cash just to pay the vig.
Donnie tells Lefty the diamond is a fake. Shocked, Lefty forces Donnie to drive with him to confront the crook he won the ring from in a bet. Donnie beats up the crook and makes him apologise.
“That cracks me up,” says Lefty. “I got 26 hits under my belt and you’re the one he’s scared of”. The trap is set.
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. Joe’s undercover job, meant to last three months, stretches to six years and nearly destroys the Pistone marriage.
When the FBI sends Donnie to Miami to infiltrate the Santo Trafficante family, Lefty sees it as a chance for him and Donnie to run a bar on the beach; “Something to show for 30 years of busting my hump”. It’s not to be.
On a yacht, Lefty overhears as Sonny Black introduces Donnie to Trafficante as “a friend of ours”. Donnie is the made guy now and Lefty is old news.
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 to infiltrate the operations of the Bonanno family in Brooklyn, NY.
The film is pitched midway between the epic Godfather (1972) and the flash Goodfellas (1990) and develops nicely as Pistone finds himself becoming rather fond of his monstrous mentor, Lefty – an aging, fading hood who takes in Donnie like a son, and is taken in and betrayed in return.
Pacino and Depp are a match made in acting heaven, riffing off each other with astonishing subtlety and wit. Pacino’s role is flamboyant but the 56-year-old actor tempers the excess that has marred his work since he hoo-ha’d his way top a 1993 Oscar in Scent of a Woman.
The period setting – a world of tacky shirts, fur collars and plastic lawns – is also beautifully evoked.
Joe Pistone/Donnie Brasco