Insomnia File #35: Donnie Brasco (dir by Mike Newell)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you happened to be awake at 2:30 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1997 film, Donnie Brasco.

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) has spent his entire life as a loyal Mafia soldier.  It’s the only life that he knows and he can tell you some stories.  He remembers the early days, back when men like Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky were in charge of things.  Lefty is proud to say that, over the years, he’s successfully carried out over 20 hits.  Lefty is lucky enough to be an associate of an up-and-comer nicknamed Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).  While Sonny was in prison, Lefty kept an eye on Sonny’s family.  Lefty feels that Sonny owes him.  Whether Sonny feels the same way isn’t always quite clear.

Lefty’s problem is that everyone loves him but few people respect him.  The aging Lefty is viewed as being a relic and, at most, they merely tolerate his constant bragging.  Lefty may fantasize about the big bosses knowing who he is but, when he tries to greet one of them at a party, it becomes clear that he doesn’t have the slightest idea who Lefty is.  Lefty spends his time worrying that he’s dying and dreaming of one last opportunity to make a name for himself.

In fact, perhaps the only really good thing that Lefty has going for him is his friendship with Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp).  Donnie is a jewel thief, a tough and volatile orphan who Lefty introduces to Sonny.  Sonny is immediately impressed with Donnie.  In fact, Sonny thinks so highly of Donnie that he assigns Donnie to look over his operations in Florida.  Lefty can only watch as his protegé’s star starts to eclipse his own.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  As Lefty explains it, Donnie’s success is also Lefty’s success because Lefty is the one who brought Donnie into the crew.  Of course, if Donnie ever fails, the failure will be on Lefty as well.

As for Donnie … well, his name isn’t actually Donnie.  His real name is Joe Pistone and he’s a FBI agent.  When he first agreed to work undercover, he was told that the assignment would only last for a few months.  Instead, the months turn into years and, piece by piece, Joe vanishes as he transforms into Donnie.  The formerly soft-spoken college graduate is soon beating up waiters and chopping up bodies in basements.  His wife (Anne Heche) fears that her husband may no longer exist.  “I  am not becoming like them,” Joe/Donnie says at one point, “I am them.”

Donnie Brasco is hardly the first film to examine life in the Mafia.  It’s not even the first movie about an undercover FBI agent who manages to worm his way into the mob’s hierarchy.  What sets Donnie Brasco apart are the performances of Pacino, Depp, Heche, Madsen, and, as a talkative mob associate, Bruno Kirby.  As played by Pacino, Lefty may be a hardened killer but he’s also just a working class guy who wishes that his boss would just show him a little appreciation.  Lefty may be capable of casually shooting a guy in the back of the head but, at the same time, there’s something heartbreakingly sad about the sight of him tearing up a greeting card that he hoped to personally deliver to the big boss.  As for Johnny Depp, he gives a surprisingly restrained performance, rarely raising his voice except when he’s yelling at his family.  Donnie may appear outwardly calm but the stress of losing his identity is always present in his eyes.

Interestingly, for a mob movie, there’s little violence to be found in Donnie Brasco.  It’s not until 90 minutes in that we get the expected scene of rival mobsters getting ambushed and gunned down.  Donnie Brasco isn’t about violence.  Instead, the film’s heart is to be found in the  story of Lefty and Donnie’s odd friendship.  Instead of being about who is going to kill who, this film is about Lefty’s desire to be something more than he is and Joe’s struggle to remember who he used to be before he became Donnie.  It’s a touching and effective gangster film and one to keep an eye out for.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man

A Movie A Day #43: The Big Heist (2001, directed by Robert Markowitz)


the_big_heist_2001In 1978, low-level mob associate Jimmy Burke (Donald Sutherland) is released after serving a six years in prison.  As soon as he arrives home, he discovers that his son, Frank (Jamie Harris), has failed to keep up with the family business and that the Burke Crew is close to becoming a joke.  Looking for a big score, Jimmy masterminds a robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport.  The so-called Lufthansa Heist becomes the largest cash robbery committed on American soil at that time.  Growing paranoid, Burke decides it would be easier to just kill all the members of his crew than to give them their cut of the robbery.  What Burke doesn’t realize is that his closest associates are destined to be his downfall.  Tommy DeSimone (Rocco Sisto) has offended John Gotti (Steven Randazzo) while Henry Hill (Nick Sandow) has become hooked on drugs and is considering turning informant.

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because part of this story was already told in Goodfellas.  The Big Heist was made for TNT and, because it focuses exclusively on the robbery, it goes into far more detail than Martin Scorsese’s film.  For instance, the character of Frank Burke was entirely left out of Goodfellas and it’s interesting to see how much more negatively Henry Hill is portrayed in The Big Heist.  Since it’s told from the viewpoint of Jimmy Burke instead of Henry Hill, The Big Heist makes for an interesting companion piece to Goodfellas but, at the same time, it never escapes the shadow of the other film.  With both movies employing voice over narration and frequent freeze frames, it’s impossible to watch The Big Heist without comparing it to Goodfellas.  Since Goodfellas was made by Martin Scorsese and The Big Heist was made for TNT, the former comes out on top.

It’s also hard to watch Donald Sutherland as Jimmy Burke without comparing his performance to Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway.  Though he never reaches the heights of De Niro’s performance, Sutherland is convincing as a sociopathic criminal mastermind.  Less convincing are Rocco Sisto and Nick Sandow, who both struggle to make an impression in roles previously made famous by Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta.