"If you're a rat, then I'm the biggest fucking mutt in the history of the Mafia."
I'm sure that Johnny Depp would probably not care for the comparison, but I like to think of his 1997 gangster drama Donnie Brasco as 21 Jump Street for adults. The actor first rose to fame playing an undercover cop on the flashy TV show for teens, and here we find him in a serious version of the same role in a high-minded motion picture with Al Pacino for a costar and a respected A-list director. Sure, it's not exactly the same thing, but it's kind of fun to think of it that way. It's that or Goodfellas-lite, which isn't really a very flattering characterization for the movie either.
Donnie Brasco is of course the movie that brought the phrase "Fahgeddabadah" to the pop culture lexicon for a brief moment in time. Based on the true story of FBI Agent Joseph Pistone, the film places Depp deep cover in the Mafia under the fictitious "Donnie Brasco" alias as he works his way in through the lower ranks of Brooklyn organized crime from the late '70s to early '80s. The wiseguy confidant he uses as an entry point, Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero (Pacino), is an aging mid-level worker in the Mob, perpetually passed over for greater things and jaded in his twilight years. Lefty takes Donnie under his wing and teaches him the rules of the game, including how to speak like a proper gangster, which requires learning the important semantic difference between the phrases "friend of mine" and "friend of ours", and the chain of command from Connected Guy to Made Guy to Skipper to Boss. The movie itself then becomes something of an object lesson for the wiseguy lifestyle, introducing the audience to terminology such as "vig", "fugazy", and the oft-spoken "Fahgeddabadah", a phrase that can mean basically anything in the world depending on the context in which it's used. Although interesting, the screenplay by Paul Attanasio (Homicide: Life on the Street) is at times just a bit too explanatory in nature, stopping to clarify details when it should be moving along with the story.
As far as that goes, Donnie becomes a rising star in the Mob, surpassing Lefty's tutelage, all the while gradually losing his identity as an upstanding law enforcement officer and turning into the man he pretends to be. Though his marriage suffers, Joe/Donnie stays undercover far longer than originally planned, and faces the moral dilemma between doing his job and protecting his surrogate father figure Lefty, a man who's admitted to murdering at least 26 people. He wants to uphold the law, but he also can't bear the thought of being a rat. Naturally, the conflict between his two opposing identities will eventually come to a head.
As a movie, Donnie Brasco has the unfortunate position of living in the shadow of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese's virtuoso masterpiece about exactly this same sort of workaday gangster, and isn't nearly in the same league. It's not really meant to be, however. Donnie Brasco is less sweeping epic than small-scale character drama. Depp and Pacino both deliver excellent performances through their thick Brooklyn accents, and the picture also features strong supporting turns from the likes of Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, Anne Heche, and Paul Giamatti. British director Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral) seems more than a bit out of his element, but works hard to get the details right and does a pretty good job of it. He revels in the period atmosphere, and I've got to admit that watching Italian Mafiosos boogie down to disco hits is kind of hilarious. The film doesn't bring much new that hadn't already been explored in the crime genre, and lacks the scope that Scorsese and others have brought to similar material, but offers a compelling story well told.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Donnie Brasco has been released on the Blu-ray format by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The disc contains only the 147-minute Extended Cut, which runs 20 minutes longer than the original theatrical release. No mention is made anywhere on the disc about whether the director approved this version, but it plays seamlessly enough without any scenes that feel jarring or disruptive.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy Blu-ray promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Donnie Brasco Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG4 AVC compression on a dual-layer 50 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
This is a very nice, just a bit imperfect transfer. The picture is quite sharp and has a fine sense of detail and depth. The opening black & white credits sequence has good grayscale. Colors in the rest of the movie are well replicated and flesh tones appear accurate. There's a touch of minor edge ringing on the sharpest of contrasts, but it hardly amounts to much. Some of the movie's natural film grain does appear artificially sharpened, however. This sometimes lends it an unnatural electronic texture, and there are a couple of scenes (notably the Pistone house at approximately the 34-minute mark) that look very noisy and seem to have problems with poor digital compression. Despite these issues, on the whole the disc looks pretty good.
The Donnie Brasco Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. This isn't a particularly aggressive track. There's little surround activity at all. The low end has a nice thump or two here and there, but not much that calls attention to itself. Dialogue sometimes sounds a little forward in the mix, and music varies on and off between being a little buried or being much too loud. That said, for what it is the PCM track has decent fidelity even if it's unlikely to knock anyone's socks off.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, or French.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.
The bonus features on this Blu-ray title are duplicated from the DVD edition. Except for the movie's theatrical trailer, the majority of supplements from the Extended Cut DVD have carried over, though a few from the prior Special Edition have gone missing.
The Special Edition DVD released in 2001 also had an audio commentary by Mike Newell that was dropped entirely for the Extended Cut, some deleted scenes (I'd imagine some or all of them wound up incorporated into this version of the movie), and an isolated musical score. None made it to the Blu-ray.
- Donnie Brasco: Out from the Shadows (24 min., SD) - This decent making-of piece features interviews from director Mike Newell, screenwriter Paul Attanasio, and the real Joe Pistone. Topics covered include research done for the script, and working with Depp and Pacino on set.
- Original Featurette (7 min., SD) - A vintage 1997 EPK promo. Pure fluff.
- Photo Montage (3 min., SD) - A simple still gallery animated montage, with audio clips from the movie played over it.
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns.
If not quite the best Mob movie ever made, Donnie Brasco is an interesting crime drama with strong performances from Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. The Blu-ray has pretty good picture and sound, if not many supplements. Isn't that enough to earn a recommendation? Of course it is, fahgeddabadah.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (HD DVD) - Johnny Depp
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (HD DVD) - Depp
Finding Neverland (HD DVD) - Depp
Goodfellas (HD DVD) - The Mafia
Lady in the Water (HD DVD) - Paul Giamatti
Sleepy Hollow (HD DVD) - Depp
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (Blu-ray) - Depp
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