Six Damn Fine Degrees #33: Donnie Brasco

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

It has been a little forgotten, hasn’t it, that little gangster flick called Donnie Brasco (1997)? It hasn’t anything as iconic to offer as The Godfather‘s ascent to power or The Godfather: Part II‘s empty shell of a mob boss, although it does have Al Pacino at its center, too. It’s not a Scorsese-style hellride that could make us like or at least weirdly admire the hard men of organized crime we are supposed to condemn outside of a movie theater.

Maybe another reason that it has been swept away by other, slicker mob flicks is that Mike Newell, the director, does not seem to have any kind of recognizable style. He has directed such vastly different movies as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010). There are no common elements of style in these four movies that I can see, so a gangster flick that does not dazzle us with superb and breathless storytelling like Goodfellas (1990), or gives us an unflinching look at the gore and blood that come with organized crime such as Gangster No. 1 (2000), will have to take a backseat. Like it got sent for.

But Donnie Brasco is still a good to great movie. Yes, there are more non sequiturs than in any Pinter play, and the editor seems to think that cutting scenes and slaughtering animals have a lot in common, because just after the most famous line of the movie, there is a cut so awkward that I still remember it as well as the line. I think, however, that the choice of substance over style is the right way to go for a story like that. It has to at least loosely follow the real lives of Lefty Ruggiero, a New York mobster, and Joseph D. Pistone, an undercover FBI agent (Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, respectively). The tension comes from the fact that if Pistone, who calls himself Donnie Brasco, is found out, he will be killed by the guy who is played by the guy who played Michael Corleone.

And there is also the daily drudgery of bringing in your share. Most mob movies tend to leave out that part because it is boring and repetitive and utterly without any kind of glamour or ambition. It involves such petty crap as sawing off parking meters, which is not a level that the likes of Henry Hill or Russell Bufalino have ever concerned themselves with. There is that moment in Donnie Brasco when all the bag-men and gophers are in the same backroom, idly drinking and smoking and getting annoyed by the one guy who actually tries to make some small change by unsuccessfully hammering open the sawed-off parking meter. What a bunch of losers. There is no unstoppable ascent to power, there is only the regret that maybe every low-level mobster feels some nights when business is bad. Because if the Corleones never managed to go legit, how would those small-time crooks ever make it? Organized crime is a trap, because you cannot get out. Even Pistone got his two personae mixed up. I am certainly not one to point out that this is based on a true story, but Donnie Brasco has some kind of realism to it that makes it, well, not exactly a documentary, but it is very easy to see that New York’s underbelly must have harbored droves of guys like Lefty. Probably still does.

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