the review site with a difference since 1999
Reviews Interviews Articles Apps About

Columbia TriStar Home Video presents

Donnie Brasco: Special Edition (1997)

"You're becoming like them. You know that?"- Maggie Pistone (Anne Heche)

Stars: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp
Other Stars: Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche
Director: Mike Newell

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for some strong graphic violence, pervasive strong language, and for brief nudity and sexuality.
Run Time: 02h:06m:30s
Release Date: 2000-11-07
Genre: gangster

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

In the 1980's, a federal agent by the name of Joseph Pistone led a double life; having infiltrated into the lower levels of the Mafia by posing as a jewel fence by the name of Donnie Brasco, he found himself increasingly sucked into the criminal life, at the expense of his private life and the stress which this impersonation put on his marriage and family. These dual threads, as well as his growing sense of loyalty toward and his ultimate betrayal of his gangster friends, form the true-story basis of this intriguing film.

The movie traces the slide of Brasco (Johnny Depp) from being an outsider associate of mobsters, to a trusted Mafioso under the protection of aging hitman Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino). As he becomes more and more involved in his underworld life, he is able less and less to deal with his children or his wife Maggie (Anne Heche) on any level whatsoever. When the head of the mob family is rubbed out, gangster Sonny Black (Michael Madsen) becomes capo in Brooklyn, to the chagrin of Lefty, who has spent a lifetime in faithful service and gotten nothing for his pains. Pressures from the FBI complicate matters for Brasco, as they insist that he also provide ties with the underworld in Florida, leading to an ill-fated attempt to extend Sonny Black's reach into Florida. Soon Pistone is forced to choose between his ascent in the underworld and his loyalty to Lefty, and doing his job as an underappreciated federal agent.

Depp gives a good performance as Pistone/Brasco. Although the commentary and the documentary go on at length about his adoption of the real-life Pistone's expressionless mask of a face, Depp also shows moments of expressiveness, with the subtleties of a man pretending to be something he is not, with the ultimate price on the line if he screws up. He also lets loose when he's forced to deal with the FBI bureaucrats who are unable to see the danger in which he's placing himself, without appreciation. One of the high points of the portrayal is when Brasco, with tape recorder in his boot, goes with his compatriots to a Japanese restaurant and is told to remove his shoes. When the maitre d' is hauled off to the bathroom and beaten, Brasco can't resist getting in a few kicks himself, in a move which is more than just playing a part, but taking on the role of the mobster to his core.

Pacino could probably sleepwalk through the part of Lefty Ruggiero at this point, but he gives a highly entertaining, often funny and touching performance as the hitman who shows Brasco the ropes while he's also seeing his ambitions get lost. Michael Madsen is intense as the uncontrollable Sonny Black. One improvised scene in which the gang hijacks a truck displays this character nicely: Sonny goes to shoot the driver, but is talked out of it by the others, and as he walks away he whirls and shoots the driver anyway, just for the hell of it. Bruno Kirby, in the minor part of gangster Nicky, is highly entertaining and quite funny. Anne Heche gives a workmanlike portrayal of Pistone's long-suffering wife.

The direction is straightforward, with good pacing and sense of direction guiding the film. One sequence, which shows Lefty is given a gift of a real lion by Sonny Black, feels out of place, however. The fact that the episode is true doesn't help, since truth isn't necessarily useful to move the story forward or to heighten the drama. It unnecessarily pads the length of the film. The film is liberally peppered with humor, and the violence is limited to three brief episodes, which makes the nature of these moments even more horrific.

While other gangster films have played up the power of the Mafia and the perks which come with being in the upper levels, this picture is noticeably different. One of the notable points made here is that no matter how close one feels as if he's getting to power, there's still another bigger fish, demanding tribute and payoffs. Everyone feels the pressure of having to come up with these payments, so that even being a capo such as Sonny Black isn't sufficient. As Lefty says, "Who am I? I'm a spoke on a wheel, and so are you."

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Columbia gives us another excellent transfer. The blacks are excellent, and colors vibrant. Much of the film is shot at night, but the detail is always very good. The anamorphic picture is sharp and crisp. No film damage whatsoever is visible. I didn't observe any artifacting or significant grain.

Image Transfer Grade: A

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, French, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The sound is clear and free of hiss and noise. The DD 5.0 track is rich-sounding with excellent range. The Dolby Surround tracks in French, Spanish and English are nearly as good, with a more limited soundstage. The lack of an LFE track is not very serious since this is not a very bass-heavy soundtrack. Dialogue is mostly center-oriented, with limited directionality. The surrounds are mostly utilized for music cues. However, the gunshots on the 5.1 track are juiced significantly; the climactic shootout with Sonny Red's gang will knock things off your shelves at even moderate volumes. The sound is sufficient, but this is hardly an inspired sound design.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Devil's Own, The Professional and The Juror
5 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director Mike Newell
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:14m:16s

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery with audio clips
Extras Review: While the original release of Donnie Brasco on DVD was a barebones affair, Columbia makes amends nicely with a packed Special Edition. Director Mike Newell offers a screen- specific commentary which contains a good deal of information and observations, though he also has a tendency to narrate the action at times. An original documentary, Out of the Shadows, which includes interview segments with Depp, Newell and Joseph Pistone himself, is a very interesting look at the true story behind the film as well as a look at the making of the picture. The documentary runs 23m:50s. This is supplemented by a 07m:22s promotional "Making of" puff piece.

Five deleted scenes, with optional commentary by the director are included. Some of them are very brief, but they were all wisely cut from the film proper. An isolated musical score of Patrick Doyle's compositions, as well as a passel of early 80's tunes is a nice feature, although there are lengthy silent passages. We also get a trailer for the film, as well as The Devil's Own, The Professional and The Juror. Rounding out the package is a 03m:01s group of stills from the film, set against a variety of audio clips.

While the quantity of extras is excellent, the quality of them is variable, hence the slightly lowered grade.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

A moving picture of loyalty and betrayal amongst the lower echelons of the Mafia, with super performances by Pacino and Depp, with a very nice set of extras. Highly recommended. Fuggiddaboudit.

Mark Zimmer 2000-11-20