Donnie Brasco is based on the true life story of undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone who infiltrated the Bonanno crime family in the 1970s. Adopting the persona of Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), a jewel broker, he is taken under the wing of Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a small-time hit man who has killed 26 people. The murder of a high-ranking boss leads to the promotion of Sonny Black (Michael Madsen) over Lefty. Feeling like nothing more than "a spoke in the wheel," Lefty pins his hopes on his protege Donnie. Meanwhile the undercover agent, who sporadically visits his wife (Ann Heche) and two daughters in suburban New Jersey, gets caught up in his role as a wheeler-dealer. His FBI controllers set up a deal for Donnie to take over a nightclub in Florida for the mob.
With a screenplay by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) this gritty film is one of the best gangster dramas in years. Depp is convincing as the role-playing agent who loses track of his real identity. But the best performance comes from Pacino as the disappointed Lefty whose dreams keep diminishing before his eyes. Director Mike Newell has likened this story to Death of a Salesman and its an apt comparison. Looking back at all his years of service to the mob, Lefty says, "Even a dog gets a warm spot on the sidewalk." The aging hit man gets far less, facing his end with stoic courage.