A year or so before The Sopranos, Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco offered a glimpse of the series with this sharp, “deep cover” mob flick, alternatively brutal and funny, and at the end, touching. Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) is actually FBI agent Joe Pistone, who goes undercover to break a mob crew led by Michael Madsen. His entree is provided by a lower-level made guy, Lefty (Al Pacino), who vouches for Donnie, shows him the ropes, and, as Donnie loses his moorings and allegiances (to both the FBI and his suffering wife, Anne Heche), becomes a father figure.
Paul Attanasio’s (Quiz Show, Disclosure, and several episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street) script is tight and playful. We get harrowing scenes where Donnie is conscripted to dispose of a body via hacksaw or merely nearly found out:
These scenes are followed by amusing vignettes of what mobsters do on vacation in Miami (water slides, burying colleagues in sand, bad tennis) or the everyday humdrum of the criminal life, stealing boxes of steak knives or parking meters. Attanasio even includes a wry stab at marriage counseling between Depp and Heche. David Chase would do the same thing for Tony and Carmella Soprano a few years latter, to similar tragicomic effect.
As Donnie becomes enmeshed in his crew, the audience becomes invested in their survival, if not from the FBI, from rival mob crews. Depp sells this kinship very effectively. This was one of his first major dramatic roles and he shows a depth and darkness that is highlighted by Heche’s increasing frustration and anger. Tempering both performances is a rare restrained turn by Pacino, who becomes Donnie’s family. It is always a treat to see an older Pacino performance that shelves histrionics.
There are a few weaknesses. The Heche-Depp marriage, rocky as it is, seems too indomitable for reality, and Depp’s introduction into the crew seems a tad effortless. But this is a picture every bit as strong as the best of The Sopranos episodes.