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  1. #1
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    Apr 2002


    -Gene Shalit, Today Show

    While I don’t really agree with my quoted cohort above, this film has always been mildly entertaining at the very least; nowhere in the same caliber as renowned established titles of this genre such as The Godfather, GoodFellas or perhaps even Casino if you want to stretch it, Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco has an odd feel to it, in addition to a rather strange pacing that somehow interjects with Johnny Depp and Al Pacino's "out-of-place" performances here. If you are a fan of either of these two, don’t go into this thinking these are the best performances of their careers -- because they’re far from it. Never before on the screen, save for perhaps Scent of a Woman has Pacino exhibited such a "powerlessness" through a character, especially being raised on tough-guy roles like Tony Montana in Scarface. At any rate, I grabbed this disc off my shelf the other night to revisit just because I was in the mood, and while Columbia TriStar/Mandalay's second attempt at releasing this title in a Special Edition format could somewhat justify a bit of applause, the results are not that spectacular at the end of the day, from a technical standpoint.

    The film is based on a rather fascinating true case regarding FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone (and in a somewhat refreshing change as compared to Scorsese gangster masterpieces like GoodFellas and Casino where actual names were used in this) who was hired to infiltrate a mob family in New York in the what I believe was the 1970s; he gets into the graces of hitman "Lefty" Ruggiero (Pacino) by posing as a jewel "expert" who is supposedly "tied in" with the underground crime world. Pacino notices him sitting in a bar and approaches Depp to analyze a diamond given to him by someone who needed to pay a debt that was owed to Pacino. When Depp tells Pacino the diamond is a fake, and Depp ends up roughing up the strip club owner who gave the diamond to Pacino, Pacino sees a possible "made man" in Depp and takes him immediately under his wing. He brings him around his social club hangout where he is introduced to Pacino's immediate boss (Michael Madsen) known as "Sonny Black" who also has a boss to answer to -- a character named "Sonny Red."

    As the film progresses, Pacino begins to "teach" Depp the ways of a mafia insider -- all the while having absolutely no idea that Depp is working undercover for the FBI. The film flashes back and forth attempting to show the struggles an undercover agent would have with balancing mafia family life and their own, as his marriage to Anne Heche is on the rocks and his relationship with his kids is becoming mauled. Pacino's mob family is in constant need now of "Donnie Brasco's" attendance with all their dealings, as he has proven to be a worthwhile member of the clan. Several sub plots begin to splinter here, as the FBI approaches Depp on one of his "off duty days" to inform him that an agent in Florida needs to front the opening of a night spot down there; Depp agrees to vouch for this agent, telling Pacino and Madsen and the rest of their crew that he has the perfect way of making more money than they ever did in New York -- the opening of a night spot called The King's Court in Florida. Madsen agrees to look into it, but Pacino is against it and advises Depp that if Depp does this, he himself is responsible for anything that goes wrong with Madsen and his men in Florida -- and that Pacino is ultimately responsible because he brought Depp into the family. This theme of "guilt" and "responsibility" in terms of Pacino to Depp runs rampant through the screenplay.

    Madsen, Pacino and their men end up opening King's Court in Florida, and party hard with some topless chicks, even on a huge yacht Pacino asked Depp to acquire to impress some higher ranking mafia friends of theirs; Depp needs to go to the FBI for the money to do this. But bad blood begins to develop between Pacino and Depp and Pacino suspects Depp of "siding" with his boss Madsen; but in a way, Pacino turns out to be right as on the boat ride, Madsen approaches Depp and tells him he wants him to run the Florida activities for the family personally. This was an insult to Pacino's character, as it seems he has been "bumped" for this new guy, Donnie Brasco. Somehow, the Florida police get wind of this mafia-run nightclub and bust in the place on opening night, breaking everything inside and arresting Madsen, Depp, Pacino and the whole gang.

    In the wake of the arrests, the guys figure out, in their community jail cell, that there must have been a rat who leaked the information about the club to the cops -- Madsen puts a contract out on whoever did it and tells Pacino he wants him to find the rat, cut his "prick off" and "stick it in his mouth" while leaving the body in the street. It ends up being Madsen's immediate boss, "Sonny Red," who was behind the whole police raid in order to shut down Madsen's operations in Florida. In revenge, Madsen plots a retaliation move whereby once returning to New York, his men are waiting for Sonny Red in his basement and when him and his guys walk in bragging about what they're going to do to Madsen and his men, the lights in the basement go on, and standing there are Madsen and his crew, holding shotguns where they proceed to wipe out every member of Sonny Red's guys. They then call in Depp, who was asked to stay in the car during this, to assist with cutting the bodies up with a saw -- something very hard for him to do as an undercover FBI agent. In the meantime, during this scene, Pacino shoots one of Madsen's men right in the head because they suspected him of being the rat they were looking for in Florida. But it wasn’t.

    The whole concept of an FBI agent attempting to balance his life with these guys and absolutely relay to them that he is dedicated to their world is rendered quite accurately through Depp's character even though this wasn’t the role of his career. We get flashes of his going back to the FBI hideouts to deliver his taped conversations with Madsen and Pacino and to unravel their shady dealings, yet at the same time, he has developed a strange friendship with Pacino which shakes him because he knows he needs to eventually turn him in. We can feel the tension in Depp's character as he struggles with this. All the while, Depp continues to need to fit in; an interesting scene comes when Madsen and the crew enter a Japanese restaurant and they are asked to remove their shoes because of the Japanese custom. Depp is immediately alarmed because he has been keeping his secret FBI recording device in his pant leg, and this would immediately give him up. He refuses to take his shoes off, and even after threats from Madsen, convinces the guys to refuse taking their shoes off as well. When the restaurant manager flips his lid and will not give them a table, Madsen and the crew drag him into the bathroom and beat him within an inch of his life; its a bloody and shocking scene even in gangster film genre standards, as they leave this guy as bloody pulp on the bathroom floor. Depp simply cannot believe that Madsen and his crew allowed him to keep his shoes on with no suspicions and that they took his side in beating the **** out of this guy. He comes home to replay the tape and hears what happened as they beat this guy almost to death and feels bad about it.

    Another subplot splinters involving Pacino's junkie son, who ends up in a hospital and when Depp comes to visit, Pacino wants no part of him because of the **** he pulled in Florida siding up to Madsen. Pacino, in an interesting moment, admits that he loves Donnie -- and just through his facial gestures, we can tell this has shaken Depp's character who knows he needs to bust this hitman but is having a hard time doing it because of the friendship that has developed. Inbetween, Depp's marriage to Heche is falling apart because of the job he is on, and they both attend counseling which just doesn’t help. Depp attempts to explain to Heche that if he comes out of the project now -- which the FBI has pleaded with Heche that Depp in fact must do -- the mob is going to kill Pacino because he brought him into the family to be trusted and to Depp, that’s just like putting the bullet in Pacino's head himself. He’s having a real hard time with this, and in a way, we understand this through that particular scene.

    A turn of events wraps up the circle of violence and mayhem Depp had been involved in during this whole "Operation Don Brasco" and comes in the form of Pacino informing Depp that the son of Sonny Red -- the gangster they gunned down in his basement after he took out Madsen's Florida club operations -- has been on the loose and looking to take out Madsen and his men in revenge of his father. Pacino informs Depp that as long as this drugged-out loose cannon is out there, none of them are safe. And so Pacino gets the contract, along with Depp, to find and kill Sonny Red's son; he is found hiding out in a boat in a marina, and while Depp comes very close to being killed by Pacino himself because Pacino suspects him of setting up that boat party in Florida with assistance from the FBI, Depp manages to talk Pacino out of killing him as they focus on the murder of Sonny Red's son. Pacino wants Depp to do the shooting, however, and this makes things very tough for this undercover FBI agent who is now being asked to take a life. But just in the nick of time, the FBI arrives on the scene to bust the situation up, taking Depp into custody while Pacino's character is taken away in handcuffs while he pleads with Depp not to tell the FBI anything and not to cooperate. He still doesn’t know Depp's true identity.

    The aftermath of the whole situation is captured in the last moments of the film, where Depp is given a $500 check by the FBI for his "efforts" during "Operation Don Brasco" and a medal while the FBI actually goes to Madsen and his men and shows them pictures of Depp as a real FBI agent, exposing him for what he really was. While Madsen and his men play it off as if they don’t believe the FBI and that "Donnie" was an undercover agent, Pacino knows his fate: because he was the one to bring this undercover agent into the family, he is the one who must take the fall for it. There is a rather emotionally disturbing scene at the end where Pacino is sitting in his apartment dressed regally in a suit, waiting for the phone to ring.....and then the call comes. He gets himself together, tells his wife not to wait up for him, and says to her "If Donnie calls....tell him.....if it had to be anyone I’m glad it was him....." as he leaves the apartment on his way to his death sentence. It was a disturbing scene in the fact that we can imagine sitting there knowing you're going to be called to be killed any minute; and then the phone rings. It was a goosebump moment for sure. How do you handle something like that? How can you know that you are being called to be killed? Pacino's character always played by the rules of the mafia game, and so he takes the death sentence responsibly -- he brought Donnie in, he fooled them, it his ultimately his fault and he must be eliminated for it.

    From what I understand through a great deal of research I did on the case and watching the countless documentaries about it, this motion picture pretty much followed exactly what the real Joseph Pistone endured while under the hand of Lefty Ruggiero and his mob family, and the way in which the infiltration brought down their operation was pretty much rendered spot-on. But much like CopLand, this film boasted a somewhat healthy dose of good lead roles but somehow just fell flat as a final result -- it is mildly entertaining, yes, but something is just "off" about Pacino and Depp's acting as if they just could have done so much more. To me, Pacino was definitely not on top of his game here. Leave that to any time Brian DePalma gets behind the camera with Pacino in a lead role...

    As I mentioned, this is the second release of this title for Columbia/TriStar in their attempt to re-visit all their circa 1997 initial DVD releases into "remastered" Special Editions of some kind; the results were mildly disappointing -- even though you're not expecting Star Wars here in terms of hit-you-over-the-head performance.


    While I didn’t have Columbia's original release on hand to compare this to, lets just say (even though the studio claimed to digitally master this) this isn’t the prettiest print you'll lay eyes on; it's not really bad, but video noise and some compression artifacts work their way in from time to time -- the most notable part of the transfer came when the vibrant, lush colors of the Miami, Florida greenery was onscreen and these seemed like they were jumping off my monitor. I detected no noise during these sequences. But once the action returned to the gritty streets of New York in the winter, the picture quality on this transfer became average at best.
    Letterboxing was visible at 2:35:1.


    There you have it folks -- and you’re not reading it wrong. This was a 5.0 mix. Yes. No LFE channel present. Not that a film dealing with this kind of material would actually somehow benefit from an LFE channel, but it is strange to see such a label in this day and age of digitally remastered surround mixes; there are plenty of other titles that don’t deserve an LFE track either and yet they find their way into full blown "5.1" presentations.

    At any rate, there's really nothing going on here aurally. The track is front-focused and only utilizes the rears during night club sequences to support the cheesy '70s disco score that seems to resonate from somewhere in the five-speaker array of a typical household home theater. And even then, the effect is not that great. This is nowhere near a spine-tingling track, folks, not that you would expect that, but it is disappointingly inactive and uninvolving, not to mention the actual output power is on the weak side. This one is going to need some cranking up beyond normal levels just to hear the dialogue at times between Depp and Pacino. Overall, a disappointing audio presentation that remains up front most of the time. There are some moments of good left to right stereo separation through the front stage, but the track is simply uninvolving to say the least.

    Being that this was reminted into a Special Edition, the extras included:

    -Exclusive Featurette: "Donnie Brasco - Out From The Shadows"
    -Original Featurette
    -Deleted Scenes
    -Isolated Music Score
    -Theatrical Trailers
    -Talent Files
    -Interactive Menus
    -Production Notes
    -Scene Selections
    Last edited by Lexmark3200; 11-08-2005 at 01:13 PM.

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