Most of the time, I really try to avoid generalizing actors based on the types of movies they usually work in, or the type of people they usually work with. It’s lazy, closed-minded, and even runs the risk of being offensive if said generalizations become widespread enough. That being said, though, for many years, I really couldn’t think of Johnny Depp as anything else but Jack Sparrow (ironic, considering that I’ve never seen a single entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean series) or “that guy who stars in all those Tim Burton movies” (including Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, both of which I vividly remember enjoying when I was younger), no matter how hard I tried.
That has finally changed, however, after seeing Donnie Brasco: a slow, gritty gangster drama that not only separates him from all his usual “Depp quirks” (namely, really cartoonish/“quirky” behavior and makeup—which, depending on the movie he’s in, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course), but proves that he can be just as good—if not even better—of an actor when taken this far out of his element. (No wonder he would go on to grace the equally successful—albeit not as critically well-received— mob film Public Enemies only 12 years later.)
Playing Joseph D. Pistone, the real-life FBI undercover agent who successfully infiltrated the Mafia under the alias “Donnie Brasco”, Depp’s smart, confident, and wisely restrained… the exact things that keep the group’s head, Lefty (Al Pacino, also in top form), from discovering Pistone’s true identity and offing him, and prevent his family from finding out what his “classified work” (not how he phrases it, but you get the idea) really is.
Over time, however, the two unexpectedly form a really close bond, albeit one that Donnie knows won’t last once his work is finished. Despite that, however, he still can’t help but start to care for this tough, paranoid soul— though it directly leads to his relationship with his worried wife, Maggie (Anne Heche) gradually getting more and more fractured by the day. Even worse, as Donnie gets deeper into Lefty’s life, he finds himself having to resort to the same kind of violence that the latter person’s buddies literally do for a living.
Perhaps the best example of this is when Donnie, Lefty, and all the latter’s pals go to a Japanese restaurant together, where, by the owners’ cultural traditions, they are asked to take their shoes off by a nearby staff member. Donnie’s shoes, however, are the only thing hiding the cables of a wiretapping device on his leg, so he hastily makes up a story about his father getting killed in Okinawa around WWII. Not only does everyone else believe this, but, after the same employee keeps demanding everybody to remove their shoes, they even resort to beating him up in the place’s bathroom … which Donnie puts an end to by repeatedly hitting him over the head with a heavy trash can. Ouch.
Now, in a decade where Scorsese films like Goodfellas (masterpiece) and Casino (haven’t seen it, but looks really, really similar to Goodfellas) had already drawn from real-life hoodlums to present riveting gangster epics, something like Brasco may initially seem like it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. Considering that a certain member of Lefty’s clan (you’ll know which one) resembles a less violent version of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito—from Goodfellas—so much that it’s nearly laughable, such suspicions should have only been bolstered among critics of the time. Instead, the film’s understated, even unglamorous outside view of the mob life resonated with them so much that they were—and I am—mostly happy to overlook its more clichéd elements.
And believe me, the film’s portrayal of such business is far removed from the apparent excesses of something like Scarface (haven’t seen that either, unfortunately). Sure, there may be jokes flying around Lefty’s buddies left and right, and sure, his entire crew is able to throw a big yacht party in order to impress a fellow mob boss, but there’s hardly any high-voltage gangster action—which only serves to make the violence that does happen all the more effective and realistic.
Admittedly, Donnie Brasco is still far from perfect. Its overall presentation, though admirably unflashy, isn’t really anything special, and some moments admittedly do feel a bit too Hollywoodized (if that’s even a word) for my liking. As a more modern and mature dive into such a potentially cartoonish genre, however, it undeniably stands out among other recent gangster flicks a little bit. Nothing here rivals Goodfellas, obviously, but what mob film in the ‘90s did?
*[SPOILER ALERT] Lefty’s ultimate conclusion after finally finding out Pistone’s true identity after he’s long gone is literally this: “If it had to be anybody, I’m glad it was him.” Sure.