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The numbers don’t lie, people are fascinated by the mob. From the Godfather to Goodfellas to the Sopranos, mob stories have been extremely successful for Hollywood over the years.  Director Mike Newell goes to the well this time with the story of Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp).  In reality Brasco is uncover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone, who has infiltrated a New York crime family.  A known ‘connected guy‘, Lefty “Two guns” (Al Pacino) sponsors Brasco into the family and in doing so lays his own life on the line. This film is a character exploration and is less focused on the gory violence so often associated with the mafia (there is one scene that will try to make a liar of me, but it is fairly telegraphed and can be avoided by squeamish audience members).

Donnie Brasco
Movie
Johnny Depp rarely turns in a bad performance and he doesn’t disappoint as Brasco.  He is remarkably understated and conflicted as he slides between the two worlds.  He finds himself slipping further and further into his ‘family’ life and develops an affinity for the lifestyle it brings.  His marriage is strained, his kids hardly recognise him and he begins to lose his fragile grip on his perspective. His performance is organic and helps to support this story.
Pacino produces another of his patented performances as Lefty.  He lends nobility to the pathetic, aging mobster who is never taken seriously by his peers.  There are also strong performances by the support cast including Michael Madsen (reminiscent of his Mr. Blonde character in Reservoir Dogs) and Bruno Kirby. Anne Heche stands out, which is quite an achievement since her character is very detached from the main thrust of the story. The understated and detached direction from Mike Newell makes this a very unassuming package.  

Video
The feature is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1.  It is quite a workable transfer by Roadshow, albeit not quite a DVD showpiece.   A decent print was used and shows off the tough, gritty setting of the New York backdrop.  There are some sections of bright colour with the Florida Casino venture a good example. In fact, most of the Florida storyline is fairly bright and colourful. For the most part though, flesh tones and the New York backdrops are understated and slightly washed out. There is a bit of grain evident throughout but this is a source problem rather than an encoding problem.

Donnie Brasco
Audio
The primary soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.1 Channel mix. The score is minimalist, with few intrusions into the drama.  When it does fade in, it is mostly mellow strings and woodwind.  On the other hand there are several traditional, almost trite ‘standards’ in the soundtrack, typical of the kind of songs usually reserved for mob dramas (no New York, New York though).
There is also a MPEG 5.1 Channel Soundtrack, which at the inception of Region 4 was the adopted soundtrack of choice. Market forces and hardware support have meant MPEG audio been outgunned in the Australian market by Dolby Digital (and even dts of late). I was unable to procure an MPEG decoder, so all I could do was listen to the converted PCM signal.  While it was functional, it was overshadowed by the Dolby mix.

The soundtrack doesn’t detract from the visuals here and while it is very able, it packs little low-end punch.
The soundstage is fairly wide but rarely ventures away from the front speakers.  The presentation is fairly clean, with no discernible dropouts, pops or clicks. The dialogue is clear and discernible, which comes in very handy with all the thick New York accents peppered through the script.

Extras
The Extras package is a little lean, which is quite unusual for Village Roadshow, who has tended to pack their releases in the past (The Matrix was a Village Roadshow release in Region 4).. It has interesting interviews with cast and crew members. The most remarkable interview would have to be the actual Joseph D. Pistone. In order to protect his new identity, his features are obscured (for reasons which will become apparent to you after you view the film). He generally has something positive to say about the production.  There is a short ‘featurette’ which is really an amalgam of the interviews, something I would have called more an extended promo than a featurette.
The sleeve lists extra footage as one of the special features. Having seen and enjoyed the film theatrically and on the (V)ery (H)azy (S)ystem, I am hard pushed to pick the extra footage in the film. If anyone can shed any light, please feel free to email me on allanh@dvdblokes.com . It is generally an interesting and welcome feature package (albeit rather light).

Donnie Brasco
Overall
Donnie Brasco is a film that slipped by a lot of people.  Like Carlito’s Way (another outstanding Pacino film), it was maligned on initial release.  It has enjoyed a renewed lease on life on home video and DVD.  While it may not be for everyone, there is plenty here for people interested in the subject matter. Presented in an inoffensive package with a few worthwhile extra features makes a tidy title indeed.


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