Donnie Brasco? You Must Be Joking

Donnie Brasco. Something about the mafia? With Al Pacino and Johnny Depp? Often included in lists of great mobster movies? I wondered why I’d never seen it.

Now I know.

It must have had the stink on it when first it opened, and I must have smelled it. I should have trusted my younger nose.

1997-donnie-brasco-poster1Donnie Brasco (’97) is a movie impossible to take seriously. It took me at least the first half hour to convince myself this wasn’t some kind of spoof. It makes Johnny Dangerously look gritty by comparison. It’s all bright happy colors in cliché ‘90s style, yet it’s set in the ‘70s. It looks like MafiaWorld at Disneyland.

The characters are cartoons, played by Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby, among others. Al Pacino is woefully miscast as a sadsack hitman or something. Pacino has a hard time playing low-status no matter what he’s in, but when no one’s status in the movie is clarified, it’s impossible; Pacino is Pacino, a high-status bad-ass. Only actually he’s not? I guess? No one’s really playing a character in here. They’re only playing types. So no one knows how to behave around anyone else. They’re just, generally, “mobsters,” doing “mobster stuff.”

Mobsters doing their thing

Mobsters doing their thing

Lefty (Pacino) decides to talk up some random guy at a bar, Donnie Brasco (Depp). Why? No idea. He needs a new buddy, maybe? Brasco, of course, is an FBI man, a genius, apparently. Just by getting a drink at the right bar, his target falls in love in with him.

Not a single scene has any weight because no meaning is given to anything anyone’s up to. So Lefty is called to some kind of sit-down, but hey—maybe it means he’s going to be shot. So am I supposed to feel tension? Is Pacino going to be taken out by someone we’ve yet to meet ten minutes into the movie? Turns out, no. Exciting.

Wacky scene at home

Wacky scene at home

Or later, our hero gang goes to meet the bad guy gang, but the bad guys are going to shoot them, but then the good guys shoot the bad guys. Might have been interesting if we’d known any of this was being planned, or what the stakes were, or why we should care.

The whole movie is just cliché upon cliché. All the scenes you’re supposed to have in your FBI-man-undercover-movie are in here, but none have any drama attached to them. It’s just a movie going through the motions, as though meant only to remind you of what movies like this look like, without actually being one.

Stranger still, it’s based on a real-life FBI agent’s memoirs. All of this fake nonsense actually happened. Which goes to show you how meaningless source material is. Movies aren’t good or bad, fake or realistic, because of where their stories come from. Their quality is all in the making. Donnie Brasco is written by Paul Attanasio and directed by Mike Newell. An IMDB check reminds me I haven’t liked a single movie either has had a hand in.

Donnie Brasco is pointless and boring and, in the end, not half as funny as Johnny Dangerously. If you’re yearning for something not to watch, Donnie Brasco is it. Hell, I could not watch Donnie Brasco for a week straight. It’s that bad.

Hey, it's a lion, fugeddaboutit

Hey, it’s a lion, fugeddaboutit

23 responses on “Donnie Brasco? You Must Be Joking

  1. Mike Newell survives off Four Weddings and a Funeral, a film I would have sworn was directed by Richard Curtis.

    I saw a pre-release version of Donnie Brasco. Sorry to hear it didn’t get any better after my audience feedback card was taken into consideration.

    • Sir, it was your responsibility as a preview audience member to ensure your voice was heard. May this cinematic debacle weigh heavily upon your shoulders!

    • I’m well aware it’s been called such. Hence my finally watching it. But why? What appeals?

      • It’s well acted, written, directed and produced. Pacino is in top form, and Depp, who often relies on annoying tics, keeps it in check here and turns in a solid performance – at times, he made me forget it was Depp. And, Bruno Kirby is terrific.
        It tells a real life tale in a way that seems more believable than most ‘true crime’ stories. Compelling and entertaining without being preachy or overdone as to belie the reality of what happened.
        Director Newell has had his share of disappointments, but FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, DANCE WITH A STRANGER, and ENCHANTED APRIL are all fine films. And, he did do one of the two best Harry Potter films with GOBLET. Writer Attanasio who you also dissed, has two (deserved) Oscar nominations for BRASCO, as well as QUIZ SHOW and co-created House M.D. for TV. Not a bad trio.
        BRASCO has a sold 7.8 rating on imdb and an 87% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, so mine isn’t exactly a minority opinion. I think it’s an excellent film. Fuggetaboutit. Or, don’t.

        • Well, yes, there we are. Merely a matter of disagreeing completely. It happens. Clearly everyone involved has had hits and earned awards and so on. And I know Brasco is highly spoken of. Hence my watching it. But man, everything about it rubbed me wrong. For late ’90s Johnny Depp, I’ll stick with Dead Man.

        • I guess you’re the only one who thought that way. Oh and me. Just what the heck was this movie about? It’s two full-blown hours of non sequiturs adding up to nothing. Seems appear out of order, it looks like a mob film scrapbook. I once tried to write a story, I remember that I would have these scenes pictured in my head vividly but I had no contacts for them. But I would write them down and hope I could weave them into the story, but I never did. So all I have are some cool non sequitur scenes. If only I knew that I just needed to film them in any order I like and then release it as a Pacino Depp film to get huge awards.

  2. Saw this movie once. I sat their slackjawed at how incompetent the movie was. How boring. How silly. How slow. How terribly shot. How lazily acted. It’s just… terrible. Like I don’t remember one single thing about it. Maybe Johnny Depp and Anne Heche have sex on the stairs? Or maybe I wished they would?

    I am constantly confused as to why people adore this movie and mention it. But I have noticed that they all say the same thing — it’s great. But no one ever talks about a scene. And no one certainly quotes it. A true sign that the movie doesn’t really crackle. It’s like kale. People claim to love it, but they inwardly only eat it because they’re supposed to and want to seem cool by saying how their kale and dirt smoothie is so much better than my milk shake. Yeah, you go on thinking that.

    Even the dude above — what do you LIKE about? The performances? Please… Doesn’t even come close to something like RESERVOIR DOGS or even PULP FICTION (both problematic in their own ways). How about FRENCH CONNECTION? MIDNIGHT RUN is a more compelling examination of the relationship between corrupt cops and the mob, fer crissake.

    Jesus, I’ve spent more time thinking about this movie this morning over coffee than the people who made this movie. They just relied on cliches, cache and the gullibility of the haughty cinematic audience.

    But make no mistake — it’s a turd.

    • Indeed. I would be curious to hear why anyone thinks it’s so grand. It’s just so very…empty.

      • My guess: people like it because Pacino plays a sad sack and that’s surprising. Not good, but surprising. I actually have the DVD somewhere for reasons I cannot explain. I have never put it on. It’s always felt like Carlito’s Way to me; just another mob film I’m supposed to like because it’s a mob film.

        But then I also think the Pacino Scarface is dreadful, granted in a comical, dated way.

  3. I found this thread by searching Johnnie Depp Donnie Brasco miscast!

    This is a great story(Joe Pistone) but terrible casting. I would Love to see it done over with a decent everything, cast, director, etc. Pacino– I ain’t Snake Charmed like most people are. Godfather, then he should have quit IMO. He was awesome as Jack Kevorkian though. Johnie Depp does crazy characters, that’s about it. Serious Drama ain’t his strong suite.

    Let’s get them to do it over and do it right.

    • Indeed. Everything about this movie needs to be erased. Surely someone could make a better version. On the other hand, I feel like I could live a happy life without seeing any more mob stories.

      As for Pacino, it sounds like you need to watch Dog Day Afternoon, stat.

  4. Your description of how and why Lefty first approaches Donnie is totally wrong. Makes the rest of your writing worthless. It’s a well-acted movie with some flaws. It’s not the best mafia movie nor is it the worst. It’s slightly above average.

    • I don’t know, I mean I did manage to make reference to Johnny Dangerously twice, so it’s not totally worthless.

      “Slightly above average.” They should put that on the poster.

      • As someone who was around 13 when Johnnny Dangerously came out, I can attest to that being one of the worst movies ever made. This is not that bad. Used to be a movie reviewer I read religiously called “Mr. Cranky” whose reviews were mostly sarcasm. He hated everything but the less he hated something the more he actually liked it. I can’t get a feel for whether your review is more sarcasm or if you really would put Donnie Brasco on a par with Johnny Dangerously…if so, then you’re nothing more than a Farging Icehole ;)

        • Unlike Mr. Cranky, I don’t hate everything. I love the movies I love, and am not all sarcastic about it. Peruse the site. The Evil Genius and I and various other contributors have all sorts of things to say about all sorts of movies. Even ones as bad as Donnie Brasco.

          (Hm. The comments box is acting wonky again. This was supposed to append my comment below, which was supposed to reply to your comment, and aw heck, what’s going on around here?)

  5. Hey, I was 13 when Johnny Dangerously came out too! Maybe we saw it together? I haven’t seen it since, but I sure thought it was funny back then. I did not think Donnie Brasco was funny. I thought it was terrible. I hope I didn’t sound insincere about that fact in the above piece, or somehow lead you to believe it was all some sarcastic comical trick to imply that I actually liked it. Because I hated it. If it were standing here in front of me right now, I’d poke it in the eye with a sharp stick and not feel the least bit guilty.

    • ” If it were standing here in front of me right now, I’d poke it in the eye with a sharp stick and not feel the least bit guilty”

      I see what you did there LOL. I’ll check out your site and appreciate the debate, even as wrong as you are about Donnie Brasco. One thing we will agree on is that it is pretty overrated. It isn’t even close to the class of Goodfellas and the Godfathers. But to have hate for it is a bit much. Movies that I save my hate for are crap like the reboot of Point Break, the reboot of Ghostbusters, overrated garbage like It Follows, and the first three episodes of Star Wars.

      • If there’s one thing we love around here, it’s telling people/being told by people how wrong they/we are about movies. You’ll fit right in. Read what I wrote about the Ghostbusters reboot and be mirthfully pleased at all the unpleasant things I say about it, or shake your fist in rage at what praise I offer It Follows. And so on…

  6. Gotta disagree here. Donnie Brasco was and still is a fantastic movie. While some of your criticisms are not necessarily wrong they seem to miss what the movie is ultimately about – which is a friendship that was doomed from the start. The movie (though based on real-life events) is about the relationship between Johnnie Depp and Al Pacino – the mob is just the setting. The dialogue is excellent and quotable and both actors nailed their roles. Ultimately, Donnie Brasco is a bromance movie and it’s one of the best.

  7. I could not agree any more with the reviewer. Boring, cliche driven, predictable formula mob movie, trying so hard to check all the boxes. I stayed with it until that ridiculous scene with Donnie and Lefty feeding the lion through the window of the car. 1. How would they get a wild animal from a cage into the back seat of a car? 2. Is Lefty going to keep the lion in his apartment? 3. Even if they had a logical way to keep a lion in urban New York, or suburban New Jersey, they would NEVER allow an animal to destroy the interior of a precious Cadillac that seems to be so important to their image. The seats would be shredded. So stupid I couldn’t believe they put it in there! Any hope they had for being taken seriously was completely lost at that point.

  8. Remember that scene where the feds tell his wife to help find him because he’s been missing and she hasn’t seen him either? Then soon after that he just is in the house beating her up and arguing, she didn’t say a word about that visit. That’s like the whole movie. Nothing connects, there’s no story. And I didn’t see any romance or get a feel for any one character in the entire film including Donnie. Remember after they shot Nicky and it was all emotional because there’s no way he was a snitch? I mean why would I have felt that? You might as well have been as far as I could tell. I have no idea who Nicky is. Nor Donnie or Lefty either. Also are cops allowed to chop up bodies? Or beat up Japanese waiters? Why did Lefty owe money? How did anyone IRL know that Johnny Red snitched on them if he was killed? Why was there no last back for killing him? Was that made up? Who was that attorney that randomly started shouting his real name in an airport? Who does that? Why did nothing come up again about it? I’m just glad Joe Pistone has interviews cuz I do earnestly want to know this story.. from SOMEWHERE.

    • I appreciate you stopping by to comment, and I’m glad another movie viewer with taste is here to point out what a turd this movie is, yet I’m also enraged at you for reminding me it exists.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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