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Donnie Brasco (1997)
Rated R

Starring: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, and Michael Madsen

Rating:
****
out of
*****

Movies about the Mafia usually end up either making the mobsters into heroes or degenerating them into caricatures. Donnie Brasco shows the human side of the Mafia, which makes it seem all the more brutal.

Johnny Depp plays Joseph Pistone, an undercover FBI agent sent to infiltrate the mob. As 'Donnie Brasco,' he gains the trust of Lefty (Al Pacino), an aging hit man who is looking to take someone under his wing.

Over time, Donnie earns Lefty's trust and is introduced to key figures in the Brooklyn underground. Lefty introduces him as his friend, which means that he takes any responsiblity for Donnie's actions.

Joe Pistone's marriage suffers because he can't tell his wife, Maggie (Anne Heche), what he does while he's working. His undercover job takes him away from home for weeks, sometimes months, at a time, sucking the life out of him in the process. Maggie pretends to be a widow just to survive emotionally.

Once Pistone realizes that he loves Lefty like a brother and would do anything for him, as Lefty would for him, the main crisis of the film develops. Does Pistone do his job or does he help Lefty get out of the Mafia to live out his dreams of answering to no one but himself?

The performances in this movie are moving, yet subtle. Pacino is in his usual top form. Depp unveils yet another side of his acting ability, cementing his status as one of Hollywood's true stars. Michael Madsen's performance as Sonny Black is quite menacing and recalls the scary nature he exhibited in 1992's Reservoir Dogs.

This is an unpleasant movie in terms of subject matter as well as the graphic nature of some of the scenes. One scene involving a Japanese restaurant is shockingly violent and unnerving. Another involving the disposal of some bodies stops just short of being unnecessary. But, that's one of the points this movie tries to get across: the Mafia lifestyle involves a lot of things you wouldn't want to have to think about or do, but there's a character thrust into the middle of all of it who has to make a choice about what he's going to do.

The year is still quite young, but Donnie Brasco is likely to be heard of again when the Oscar nominations are announced next year. It's in the same league as Goodfellas and The Godfather. Highly recommended. 

Trivia: Bruno Kirby, who plays Nicky, also starred in The Godfather Part II with Al Pacino. Kirby's also been in City Slickers, The Basketball Diaries, and Good Morning, Vietnam. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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