While most film fanatics instantly declare either 'The Godfather' or 'Goodfellas' as the ultimate mafia masterpiece, I tend to give consideration to 'Donnie Brasco' -- a frequently overlooked, dark-horse alternative. Don't get me wrong, the other two films deserve their infamy and truly stand as the best of the best. However, 'Donnie Brasco' fills in a crucial gap that makes it essential to my mafia musts, examining the blue-collar foot-soldiers of the mob. Instead of focusing on a rise to power or a fall from grace, 'Donnie Brasco' examines the inner-conflict between human compassion and criminal impulses. It's not necessarily a morality tale; it's a study of loneliness, loyalty, and the loss of identity.
Based on the true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone, 'Donnie Brasco' is set at the the height of mob supremacy in the '70s, when Pistone went undercover to infiltrate the Bonanno crime family in New York. The film follows Pistone (Johnny Depp) as he assumes the undercover identity of "Donnie Brasco," and makes his way into the fold by befriending an older mafia soldier named Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), an underappreciated hitman who complains of the disrespect shown to him over the years despite his service. With Ruggiero's own son a disgrace (and Brasco seemingly willing to listen to his instructions), the old man can't help but feel he's found a protégé in the young man to whom he can pass all his knowledge. Much to Pistone's surprise, he develops a tight friendship with the aged gangster, although he knows that the eventual revelation of his identity will result in Ruggiero's death. As the young agent burrows deeper into the world of the mob, he begins doubting his decisions, his family life disintegrates, and he slowly loses control of the entire situation.
When 'Donnie Brasco' was first released in 1997, critics largely praised the the writing, Mike Newell's direction, and the startlingly authentic performances from Depp and Pacino. Depp pulls off one of his most difficult roles and really nails the duality between Pistone and his Brasco alter-ego. Watching Depp bobble between his two personalities is enthralling and showcases the astounding control he has over his craft. Pacino is less "hoo-ah" and more introspective as a transparent sad-sack whose criminal dealings have left his humanity both ragged and raw. His performance is desperately quiet and draws genuine empathy from me each time I see the film.
Some detractors have called the film's story predictable, which is true -- the set up alone dictates the inevitable outcome. But that's the point. By seeing the endgame coming from a mile away, the audience is placed directly alongside Pistone as he struggles with the eventuality of what he has to do. It makes the Pacino character heart-achingly depressing without allowing his charm to steer the film into bland sentimentality. The script is well layered, allowing plenty of breathing room for the audience to take a close look inside both men's souls. Perhaps most notably, the dialogue is simply wonderful -- understated but realistic, it fleshes out the world of Ruggiero and shines a spotlight on the turmoil he and his associates struggle with at the tail of end of their glory days.
My only complaint about 'Donnie Brasco' is that it bends the facts to inflate the drama. Character fates are exchanged, deaths are added, and consequences are more severe than they actually were. All in all though, unless you're looking for a documentary on the subject, 'Donnie Brasco' is a great cinematic period piece that offers a unique glimpse into the soul of mafia middlemen and undercover agents who risk their very being to bring an end to organized crime.
Note that while this extended cut of the film adds an additional 20 minutes of scenes, I have to admit that I was hard pressed to identify them (and I've seen this film quite a few times). Nevertheless, for those interested in tracking such things, the reinserted footage includes a scene that focuses on the aftermath of a mob hit in a restaurant, more moments between Pistone and his wife (Anne Heche), quieter exchanges between Ruggiero and Pistone, and a few additional scenes concerning Pistone's private struggles. Overall, the extended edition felt a little more steady to me, but I doubt that it will cause anyone to like or dislike the movie anymore than they would watching original theatrical print.
I knew I was going to enjoy the film itself in its high-def disc debut, but considering that it's a decade old now, I wasn't expecting it to look so good. Presented in 1080p using the AVC MPEG-4 codec, 'Donnie Brasco' is packed with vivid colors, deep blacks, and natural skintones. Simply put, this Blu-ray release is what all high-def catalogue titles should look like and I applaud the studio for taking such care with this relatively low profile flick. Background and fine object details are sharp, the source is pristine, and texture detail on skin, clothing, and hair is well rendered. A light grain gives the picture depth and crisp shadow delineation helps boost a three dimensional appearance in a lot of scenes. Sunlit shots don't flatten the image, the contrast range adds to an impressive depth of field, and tiny textures and patterns didn't cause areas of the picture to shimmer.
There are a few minor issues -- the white levels in some scenes are a bit overblown, a handful of shots are a tad softer than others, and there were two moments when I detected some black crush in darker corners. That being said, overall this is a beautiful transfer with rare and negligible flaws.
Skip past the thin Dolby Digital surround track (640 kbps) and head for the real goods on this one -- an uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix that balances explosive gunshots with subtle nuances in each of the actors' vocal deliveries. Solid prioritization, gentle channel movement, and nice accuracy help make the soundfield immersive. The dynamic range of sound helps the soundscape establish a resonant presence and the ambiance is subtle but full. I was also happy to hear New York sound so alive without sacrificing the clarity of the characters' voices.
For the most part, 'Donnie Brasco' is a dialogue-driven film and the surround channels are relegated to ambient work. When violence explodes across the screen, treble ranges tend to peak, but rich bass tones from the subwoofer help to alleviate any annoyance with the high end range. Thankfully, the dialogue isn't tingy and doesn't waver during whispered lines. Everything that should be heard is crystal clear and rooms have convincing acoustics that add to the believability of more quiet scenes.
Another solid effort from Sony.
Fans shouldn't be fooled: the "exclusive" featurette mentioned on the back cover of 'Donnie Brasco' isn't exclusive to this Blu-ray release -- it also appears in the concurrently released "extended edition" standard DVD and was even included in the Special Edition of the disc (first released back in 2000). Even more disappointing, the audio commentary found on previous DVD releases of the film is MIA.
Both of the included featurettes -- the newer "Out From the Shadows" (22 minutes) and the untitled original featurette (8 minutes) -- are paper thin at best. They each touch briefly on the events and people who inspired the film, but are strangely devoid of interviews with many of the survivors of the Brasco investigations. Even the "exclusive" longer one feels like promotional fluff. The participants tend to talk about how authentic the film is without offering many reasons to support that assertion. Their exploration of the factual Pistone and Ruggiero is surface level at best and fails to offer up any new information beyond what is already covered in the film.
The "Photo Gallery" (4 minutes) is a montage of images set to soundtrack selections from the film. This is a dry and seemingly pointless supplement whose disc space could've been utilized for better features already available on the standard DVD editions of the film.
'Donnie Brasco' is a fascinating look at low-level mafia life and the men who try so hard to make something of themselves. As a fan of the film, I was ecstatic to find a near-perfect picture and a great sound package, but I was disappointed by the lack of ported over supplements. If you haven't seen the film, you should do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this Blu-ray release. If you're a fan who already owns the film on standard DVD, the improved video presentation alone makes this new high-def transfer well worth the money, and the extra twenty minutes are a nice bonus, as well