(Credit: Netflix)

Films

The gangster film that gives Johnny Depp and Al Pacino their best performances

Two icons of 20th-century cinema, Johnny Depp and Al Pacino have only truly worked with one another once: on the quite brilliant Donnie Brasco. The film not only operates as a slick clinical vision of catching organised criminals but as a vehicle for two fine acting performances that just so happen to be the best of their respective careers.

Alfredo James Pacino, better known as Al Pacino, is the definition of ‘the man, the myth, the legend’. With his nearly five-decade-long career illuminated by various blockbusters which lay witness to him playing iconic characters with grit and passion, Pacino is one of the very few performers who have received the Triple Crown of Acting.

One of the biggest names in the film industry, American actor Johnny Depp is known for his wonderful and whimsical performances in films. Depp has received critical and commercial success, earning nominations for ten Golden Globe Awards (winning one) and three Academy Awards. In addition to acting, Depp has also worked as a musician. He has performed in numerous musical groups, including forming the rock super-group Hollywood Vampires along with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry.

However, their brilliance comes together perfectly on Donnie Brasco. Based on a true story, Newell’s 1997 crime drama stars Depp as a young FBI agent Joseph Pistone who goes undercover as “The Jewel Man,” Donnie Brasco. 

The distinction between a law enforcer and a mobster gets blurred as Pistone becomes the protege of ageing gangster Lefty Ruggiero (played by Al Pacino). This film proved that Depp, a rising star, could hold his own among some of the top actors in the industry. “I’m a huge fan of some of the better films of the genre, like The Godfather I and IIGoodfellas and Casino,” the actor revealed. “But for me, those films slightly romanticize the Mafia and they deal with the upper echelons. While researching Donnie Brasco, I didn’t meet too many of the upper-echelon guys, but I met some of the grunts, the soldiers.

“These guys are really funny guys, and very charming. They’d do anything for a score. They will bust a parking meter open, they do that kind of stuff. There’s a whole lot of humour in the film. One thing I like is that the film doesn’t glorify the Mob and it certainly doesn’t glorify the FBI. There are no winners and I think that is more like life.”

Adapted from Pistone’s book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, the film is witness to an electrifying camaraderie shared by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp as the ageing Mafioso and the undercover agent respectively. Subtle and nuanced, the well-crafted portrayal of dysfunctional friendships in organised crime is gut-wrenching; the dilemma between betraying one’s friend and responding to the call of duty is maddening.

The final scene, especially, is aching and Pacino’s resignation to his fateful ending has a wonderful and subtle exit, which adds beauty and grace to the already heart-rending film.

Watch Donnie Brasco on Netflix now.