Richard Lutz plunders the TV listings to find the movie of the week.
There are 432 different way to say “Forget about it”, according to Al Pacino in the Mafia drama Donnie Brasco (Friday, 1.00am, Sky Cinema Crime).
Pacino stars as burnt-out gunman Lefty Ruggiero, a semi-retired Mafia hitman who takes the eponymous Donnie Brasco under his criminal wing. Except Brasco (Johnnie Depp) isn’t an apprentice assassin. He’s an undercover FBI agent.
And therein lies the crux of this dark human comedy of Mafia manners. Brasco slowly perceives the flimsy trashy side of Lefty, sitting in his shabby living room wearing appalling leisure suits and watching nature films all day. But, ultimately, he slowly can’t help but like Lefty as a bumbling wreck who has created a fantasy gangster backstory. Pacino, in effect, plays this monumental loser of the New York underworld as half tragedy, two thirds comedy. A Falstaff of the grubby city streets.
And there’s that hilarious scene where Lefty teaches Donnie the not too subtle nuances of that famous New York phrase, “Fuhgedaboudit”. Emphasise a word differently, add a mini-shrug here and there and the meaning changes completely. It can go from threatening to rejection to disbelieving to outright appeasement with a bat of the eyelid. It’s worth this vignette alone to take in the movie.
But the crunch comes when Brasco is ordered to carry out his first murderous hit. He is caught: Will he let down trusting Lefty, or go for the killing? Depp plays it well. He usually does. But this is Pacino’s finest role. You can always play the tragic hero, as in Godfather 2, but to play the tragic loser is the real deal of acting. It’s a tour de force from the Bronx actor.
He’s helped by a script steeped in New York. Much of it was lifted from FBI wire taps so there is no Hollywood gloss on the dialogue. And who directed? Not Scorsese, not Coppola, not Ferrara- all italian descent directors with a track record of crime movies.
No, this 1997 film is directed by a Hertfordshire-born Englishman, Mike Newell whose own CV includes Four Wedding and a Funeral and a Harry Potter film. Not exactly the blood soaked streets of lower Manhattan.
He, Depp and Pacino are helped by solid cast support: Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) and Bruno Kirby (Godfather 2). It scored big with a $125 million turnover against a $25 million budget.
There was an Oscar nomination and solid reviews. But overall, it’s a gritty romance. As critic Roger Ebert commented: “Donnie Brasco is the story of two men who grow to love each other.”