Once upon a time, people like Johnny Depp and Anne Heche used to make real movies because as young people they, apparently, respected their craft enough to use it as a vehicle for artistic meaning instead of just a path to fame or whatever trappings they now enjoy/regret. Donnie Brasco is one such rarity which, despite being somewhat mainstream in appeal, rises above genre to become a trial and tribulation in meaning, vocation, and the meaning of vocation in a world that conflates morality with risk aversion.
It toes the line of every trope ever left bare by every gangster flick since and including The Godfather (1972), yet speaks on a level above most of these (tropes, and said gangster flicks) throughout much of its running time. Where Goodfellas wanted to be a comedy with an “edge,” this is an immersion into the realities of criminality while maintaining a sense of humor. Where Scarface wanted to be a party on drugs, this takes a paradoxical but frank leap into the intoxication of tragedy and error. And where everyone’s favorite The Godfather showed — one hundred times better than The Sopranos — how mob and family can create an uneasy moral quandary that is nonetheless greater than the sum of its parts, Donnie Brasco somehow competes with blatant antithesis (it’s not as good a movie as The Godfather nor its sequel, but, to critical chagrin, it’s probably better than Goodfellas).
Much overlooked in storytelling is the ability to depict without showing. In Donnie Brasco, what’s omitted often tells more than what’s shown or spoken of. Kids are mentioned frequently and highly valued but only seen once, almost as an afterthought. Phone conversations are one sided. Action happens out of frame and moves into it as needed, instead of the erratic (epileptic) cut scenes of modern filmmaking. But what sets it apart from the heap of random mediocrity showing at cinemas worldwide today is more simple and harder to stick to: artistic integrity.