Al Pacino has done countless characters that all are applicable answers when fans are asked for their favorites. But over three movies, my favorite Pacino character has and always will be cold-blooded Michael Corleone. The Godfather movies are on the whole classic movies -- okay, maybe not Part 3 -- and a huge reason for the classic status is Pacino's Corleone. Michael is cold, calculating, brutal and seemingly without emotion as he makes decisions to protect both his family and himself.
It is a character that has stuck with him throughout his career and in some ways typecast him. He's too good an actor to be pigeon-holed though, always experimenting with new, unique parts. Similar in story and background to The Godfather but different in every sense in looking at Pacino's character is 1997's Donnie Brasco. He plays Benjamin 'Lefty' Ruggiero, a mid-level thug who is stuck in his long-time position within organized crime, but because he does his job and doesn't cause trouble, he's not a threat either. So basically, the anti-Michael Corleone, a fast climber on his way to the top. It's an underrated and even a little under-appreciated performance from Pacino in an underrated movie.
It's 1973 in New York and FBI agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) has been working undercover for two years trying to get in with the local hoods. He gets his chance when he's approached by Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino), a made man working for one of New York's big-time mafiosos. Lefty takes to Pistone -- cover name Donnie Brasco -- immediately and begins to show him how things are done, the ways of the business. One of Lefty's associates, Sonny Black (Michael Madsen), is making a positive impression wherever he goes, and he's bringing his crew with him to the top, including Donnie. But as the days turn into months and years, Donnie acclimates to the life to the point he likes his fake life better than his own. No matter how he feels though, it only takes one slip up and the whole ruse will come crashing down.
Mafia movies could have their own wing of a movie library all to themselves with all the quality entries over the year. Surprisingly enough though, Donnie Brasco is rarely mentioned with some of the classics. And to be fair, maybe it isn't a classic, but it's pretty close. It doesn't settle for the accepted stereotypes and never tries to make the mafia look like anything other than a low-down, dirty, bloody, extremely violent life where anyone and everyone could turn on you. Director Mike Newell gets the little things right from the 1970s style of cars and clothes to the camaraderie that develops among this tight-knit group. The writing is pitch-perfect (including THIS absolute classic discussing the meaning of 'Forget about it') and keeps the story flowing. The violence is kept to a minimum for the most part with one big exception, a hit attempt late in the movie, but don't go in expecting buckets of blood.
One of the coolest things a casting director can do is pair established mega-stars with up and coming stars on the rise. You get combinations of great acting duos across movie generations, and the audience almost always comes out on top. Above all else in Donnie Brasco is this relationship between Donnie and Lefty, the mafia made man eventually becoming a mentor to the new guy, almost like a big brother or even a father figure. Through all the trials and tribulations, the two remain friends. As the situation escalates, Donnie even begins to feel guilt at what he's doing. Sure, he's doing his job in the line of duty, but Lefty, Sonny, Nicky (Bruno Kirby) and Paulie (James Russo) have genuinely become his good friends. Of course, as an undercover agent, he knows there is no way it can all end pleasantly, but that's to worry about when the time comes.
Neither Pacino or Depp were nominated for their parts, but I can see how both could have earned at least an Oscar nomination if not a win. Pacino's part is a nuanced one as he somehow makes this very unlikable character into a likable one. He gives Lefty all these little personality traits that alone would seem odd, but combine them and they work as this great red-blooded character. Lefty's final scene -- while insinuating a fictional fate -- is Pacino at his best, a silent scene as he knows he's met his end in one way or another. For Depp, this was before his huge movie star parts, but he shows that no matter the movie he can nail the part. Depp always comes across as very watchable, very personable, even when his character isn't. Teamed with legendary Pacino, and you've got a real winner.
The only thing keeping Donnie Brasco from being a classic in my eyes was the subplot involving Donnie/Joe and his struggles at home with his wife (Anne Heche). These scenes have a been there, done that feel because we have been there and done that with these homefront fights. It's not that they're awful scenes, but compared to anything with Donnie and his infiltration of the mob, they just don't have the same impact. Still, this is a hidden gem, and one that I'm sorry I missed all these years.
Donnie Brasco <---trailer (1997): ***/****