A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Norman Mailer told us tough guys don't dance, but in the movies, it's mostly tough guys who do dance. We're so leery of close emotional bonds between men that the movies are only comfortable showing them if the guys are cops, jocks, soldiers or mobsters. Beneath everything else, "Donnie Brasco'' is the story of two men who grow to love each other, within the framework of a teacher-student relationship. It's not about sex. It's about need.
The movie opens in a New York coffee shop that's a hangout for the mob. A young guy named Donnie (Johnny Depp) comes in and talks disrespectfully to an older guy named Lefty (Al Pacino). Lefty can't believe his ears: "You're calling me a dumbski? You know who you're talkin' to? Lefty from Mulberry Street!'' As if that means anything.
Actually, though, it means a lot to Donnie Brasco, whose real name is Joe Pistone, and who is an undercover agent for the FBI. He gradually wins Lefty's trust, and it becomes clear that Lefty badly needs someone to trust; he has cancer, his son is a junkie, and his mob career is going nowhere. Donnie is a good-looking kid who listens well, and Lefty desperately needs to be a mentor. In another world, he would have been your favorite high school teacher.
"If I say you're a friend of mine, that means you're connected,'' Lefty explains to Donnie. "If I say you're a friend of ours, that means you're a made guy. If I introduce you, I'm responsible for you. Anything wrong with you, I go down.'' The movie is based on a 1978 book inspired by the real "Donnie Brasco'' case (its author is still living in the government witness protection program). The story plays like a companion to "GoodFellas", with the same lore, the same fierce Mafia code, the same alternation between sudden violence and weird comedy. (At one point, Lefty is summoned to a meeting with his boss and expects to be killed. Instead he's given a present--a lion, because he likes to watch wild animals on videos.) The British director Mike Newell, whose biggest hit was "Four Weddings And A Funeral" might seem like a strange choice for this material, but he's the right one, because the movie is not really about violence or action, it's about friendship. We can see immediately why Lefty is drawn to Donnie, but it takes a little longer to see why Donnie begins to like Lefty. After all, a guy risks his life because he trusts you; you can't help feeling like a rat if you're double-crossing him.