[box cover]

Donnie Brasco: Special Edition

Columbia Tristar Home Video

Starring Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Anne Heche
and Michael Madsen

Written by Paul Attanasio
From the book by Joseph D. Pistone

Directed by Mike Newell

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

There are some movies that have bad luck no matter how good they are. From Citizen Kane to L.A. Confidential, many fine movies have failed to find a popular audience. This situation only makes the critics and fanatics even more dedicated to the films. Another example is Donnie Brasco from 1997, now receiving a reissue on DVD from Columbia TriStar as a special-edition disc with a ton of extras. The film deserves it.

The aesthetic success of Donnie Brasco took specialists by surprise, because of its complex production history and the people involved. For one thing, though the movie was initiated much earlier, it arrived in theaters after the wild popularity of Goodfellas. This disturbed the upper-echelon producers, who at that time were in charge of a film directed by Stephen Frears and starring Al Pacino and Tom Cruise. What eventually made it to the screen was a movie starring Pacino and Johnny Depp, directed by Mike Newell.

Newell was something of an odd choice. Frears, though also British, had worked in the thriller genre before, from the delightful cult film Gumshoe to The Hit and The Grifters. But Newell was a different kettle of fish. Having just come off of the international success of the slapsticky romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, and having previously done Enchanted April, he didn't strike the informed viewer as optimum gangster-film material. But Newell is not necessarily an auteur in the strict sense; he's much more the metteur en scene, very good with actors, whom he enjoys and appreciates. Thus, in that regard the material per se is unimportant. Having made something like 50 movies for television since 1964, Newell is versed in the intricacies of conveying information quickly and clearly, and establishing emotion with subtlety, regardless of the subject matter.

In Donnie Brasco Newell had a dream cast. After Pacino and Depp, there is also Bruno Kirby, James Russo, and Michael Madsen, among many others in a character-actor-rich palette that Newell was free to draw from. In Peter Sova — a frequent collaborator with Barry Levinson, whose company produced the film — he had a cinematographer adept at capturing the dirt and darkness of New York City. In Paul Attanasio's screenplay he had a fine adaptation of a true-life account of FBI agent Joe Pistone (Depp), who infiltrated a Brooklyn-based branch of the Bonanno Mafia family. Essentially, under the name Donnie Brasco, Pistone first befriends one Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino) in a dance of mutual exploitation. Lefty works for the lower-class group of hoods led by Sonny Black (Madsen) that is in competition with the Manhattan-based and more suave Sonny Red (Robert Miano). Ruggiero and Pistone eventually become legitimate friends. Later, Black is "upped," and the passed-over Lefty becomes bitter as he then sees his young protégé Donnie advancing over him. Meanwhile, Pistone's marriage is in trouble, and the crew come to suspect that one of their own is a snitch. Eventually, Pistone faces the dilemma of both liking Lefty, and also knowing that everything he is doing will lead to Lefty's assassination.

So, how was Newell and his producers to know that the public had, perhaps only momentarily, lost interest in gritty, realistic, Sidney Lumet-style true-life crime tales? For despite its merits, Donnie Brasco, which was produced for $35 million, made just under $42 million in the United States. The film did, however, go on to be nominated for, and in some cases even win, a variety of prizes, including a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1998 Oscars.

Donnie Brasco is a fine film, deeply moving, funny, and suspenseful. Pacino is brilliant. Note, among many moments, the scene where he unburdens himself of his personal possessions before he heads off for a deadly meeting. Depp reminds us that he is the best actor of his generation, and the rest of the cast is solid, except for poor Anne Heche, who has the traditional role of the nagging, boring wife. And don't forget Tim Blake Nelson and Paul Giamatti as two FBI technicians who, in the film's most famous scene, ask Donnie to explain the offhand expression "fuggedaboudit." Donnie Brasco also has a beautiful score by one of the better movie composers, Patrick Doyle, whose musical themes you can actually remember after leaving the theater. There's also about 25 pop tunes from the movie's era, mostly the '70s, that are sometimes rather wittily selected.

Columbia TriStar's Donnie Brasco: Special Edition features an anamorphic widescreen image (2.35:1) with a flawless source print, and the image is consequently very good. There are numerous sound and speech options: Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, and Dolby 2.0 Surround in English, French, and Spanish, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish (the disc is also closed-captioned). There's an isolated score track, a three-minute photo gallery with audio track combining music and dialogue from the film, the theatrical trailer plus three "bonus" trailers, talent files on the director and the five lead actors, production notes, and DVD-ROM weblinks to the film's website.

But the most outstanding supplement on this disc is the audio commentary by director Newell. It's one of the best because Newell is so involved — still involved — with Donnie Brasco. His remarks are carefully calibrated to the flow of the film, and he comes across as one of the movie's biggest fans, truly appreciating Pacino's performance and the visual wit of the clothes, cars, and faces. Newell also provides an introduction and commentary for five deleted scenes. They are presented in full-frame versions, and the source prints were editors versions, thus bearing plenty of dirt and scratches. The most significant scene — a sequence really — provides more information about the lion that Lefty receives as a gift from Sonny. There is also a well-acted scene of Lefty talking to Sonny about his shirt and then Sonny pressuring Donnie to reveal what Lefty is up to (a moment from this sequence was included in the trailer, and he only one of these scenes that the movie would have benefited from keeping). There's also a different, or at least additional, version of the scene in which the two Sonnys meet in a restaurant, and another short scene of Donnie's wife receiving an envelope from the IRS announcing that the Pistones have been audited. Finally, there's a few seconds of Brasco, under pressure, tearing up his room like the aged Kane. There are two promotional documentaries — a seven-minute featurette (that is really a glorified trailer), and a 23-minute featurette called Donnie Brasco: Out of the Shadows, made for this disc, which features an interview with the real Pistone.

— D. K. Holm

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