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Category:    Home > Reviews > Gangster > Drama > Donnie Brasco Extended Cut (Blu-ray + DVD-Video)

Donnie Brasco Extended Cut (Blu-ray + DVD-Video)


Picture: B+/B-     Sound: B+/B-     Extras: C     Film: B+



I think I finally put my finger on why organized crime is such a continually captivating subject for movies and television.  I surmise it's because anybody remotely involved with these id-driven "wise guys" can get bumped off at any given moment.  The threat of violence is always there.  We watch with fascination at a safe distance while wondering how anyone who's not psychopathic or extremely stupid could stand such a life.  Even though gangsters can make lots of "easy money," what's easy about it if you're always being dragged into court and having to constantly look over your shoulder?


As Al Pacino's gangster character, Lefty Ruggiero, says in Donnie Brasco, in the mob, it's often your best friend who ends up doing you in.  In this 1997 film, Lefty's words are prophetic as it's his own best gangster pal, Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), who's eventually responsible for his demise.  Unbeknownst to Lefty, Brasco, who becomes his right-hand man, is really one Joseph D. Pistone, an undercover FBI special agent whose job it is to secretly gather evidence and bring down Lefty and other more important members of the Italian Mafia in late '70s and early '80s New York City -- Pistone's undercover operation was also the basis for the short-lived CBS series Falcone (2000).


With a script by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, The Good German) that's based on the non-fiction book by Pistone and Richard Woodley about Pistone's experiences while undercover with the Mafia, the film version of Donnie Brasco is a somewhat fictionalized account of Pistone's six years as mob associate Donnie Brasco.  Ironically, it is one of the fictionalized elements of the story which is most interesting and affecting; the characterization of Pacino's Lefty as a sad-sack Mafia loser who's always getting the short end of the stick.


It's interesting to see the actor who so memorably played mob bosses in The Godfather trilogy and Scarface move to the totally opposite end of the spectrum and play a Mafioso like Lefty who's the low-man on the totem pole.  And Pacino is once again excellent, bringing a certain sadness to this character that's reminiscent of a criminal Willy Loman.  In fact, there's such an unassuming, gruff sweetness to Lefty that it's hard to believe he supposedly killed 26 men -- the Lefty we meet has obviously mellowed with age and the resignation that he's not going anywhere, and he almost seems a little too soft to be a made member of the Mafia.


While it's unlikely the real-life Lefty was this ingratiating, the Lefty portrayed by Pacino makes it easy for the audience to identify with the internal conflict of Depp's Brasco.  On one hand, Brasco comes to genuinely like his Mafia mentor while struggling with the fact that since Lefty was the one who vouched for him, whenever his assignment ends and his real identity is revealed, it will surely mean the end of Lefty -- Pacino is the epitome of brilliant understatement when Lefty finally comes to the sad realization that it's all over for him.  The film's final scenes resonate not only the pain of the betrayed, but also the pain of the betrayer.


Brasco's loyalties are further tested by his impatient wife (Anne Heche), who can't completely fathom why her husband is away for weeks and months at a time, and the callousness of the U.S. government, which has the audacity to audit him when he's putting his life on the line undercover every day.  The film nicely draws parallels between the unfair politics at work in both the FBI and the Mafia. 


All of the supporting players are well cast with Michael Madsen right at home as Sonny Black, the volatile leader of Lefty's gang; the late Bruno Kirby as an affable member of Sonny's crew named Nicky; James Russo in the underdeveloped role of gang member Paulie; and Zeljko Ivanek as Brasco's immediate FBI superior.  Smaller gangster roles are capably filled by Robert Miano and Val Avery, while Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson appear as FBI surveillance experts.  And yes, that's a young Gretchen Mol as a waitress turned Mafia groupie.


Donnie Brasco was a good film in theaters at 127 minutes, but it's now an even better, more complete movie in its 147-minute extended cut.  However, in spite of the improvement, it still just misses ranking in the upper echelon on mob movies such as GoodFellas, Casino, The Godfather films, State of Grace and Once Upon a Time in America.  While Donnie Brasco is constantly absorbing, it's damaged by a few continuity problems, which may have occurred because it was directed by an unlikely choice, the British Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile).


In what was his first Hollywood film, it's possible Newell wasn't totally familiar with American culture.  But that's still no excuse for the sloppiness of mistakenly having John Wayne's June, 1979 death and Mother's Day mentioned as taking place in the wintertime, and a couple of moments where the seasons visibly change from one scene to the next.  If Newell didn't notice these things, somebody else clearly should have.


Like Danny De Vito's Hoffa, Donnie Brasco would have benefited from sticking to a stricter real-life timeline and putting specific dates on the screen.  A little more attention to detail might have made it a true genre great, but the longer cut is certainly good enough to now make it one of 1997's best.


Sony Pictures new unrated, extended cut of Donnie Brasco is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with English 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, as shot by Director Of Photography Peter Sova. The Blu-ray shows off the new print to even better advantage with better Video Black, detail and depth. The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1 on both discs and PCM 5.1 16/48 exclusively on the Blu-ray. Music by Patrick Doyle is not bad and the PCM mix is best.


The extras include a photo gallery and two featurettes already featured on Sony's previous special edition DVD from 2000.  A director's commentary recorded for that previous edition is not included here.  I guess fans will have to keep the older version, but this is a fine reissue and upgrade worth getting in either format.



- Chuck O'Leary


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