Saturday, May 3, 2008

My Favorite Al Pacino Performance: Part II

This post will focus on the supporting roles of Al Pacino in DICK TRACY, DONNIE BRASCO, and THE INSIDER. WARNING: SPOILERS. Click here to read Part I.

After a series of dramatic roles in his career (with the exception of the lackluster Author! Author!), Pacino nailed his comedic supporting performance as the villainous crime boss, Big Boy Caprice, in Warren Beatty's comic strip-based detective adventure, Dick Tracy. Dick Tracy may not be a perfect comic book movie or even a great one, but it is undeniably entertaining and fun. Not only is the film supported by a grade-A cast, it also has a couple of wonderful Stephen Sondheim tunes to go with it. The look of the film is a delight; the art direction doesn't live in the realms of reality, but instead it rips out its ideas from a 1930s funny paper section. Although Pacino's version of Big Boy doesn't bear any resemblance to the original Big Boy in the comic strips, he wildly grabs the essence of what a goofy but threatening villain should be like.

As Big Boy, Pacino doesn't just chew up every scene--he swallows it whole. The character is more cartoon than human, but Pacino is so alive and energetic that Big Boy becomes more a true villainous being as the film progresses. Aside from the silly lines and mannerisms, Pacino is able to transform Big Boy into a dangerous threat to the film's detective hero. Big Boy is ruthless when it comes to getting what he wants and when he wants it. There are moments where the script creates some lighthearted lines for Big Boy to deliver and those scenes could have been done awfully wrong. Instead of making Big Boy into some clownish caricature (like just being the guy who gets to spank Madonna's Breathless), Pacino delivers his lines and showcases his movements with the right amount of aggressive prerogative and boiling viciousness so that the audience will still able to take this minor Hitler-lookalike seriously.

When Big Boy does something horrible, he just lets it slide off his shoulder. There is no dramatic fuss or guilt. This is what being a truly wicked villain is all about in a PG-rated affair. Pacino lets Big Boy to be likable, but only to an extent. Of course, we can still laugh at the jokes, but there is something inside the moviegoer that just wants the villain to be defeated and Pacino clearly understands that aspect of the audience, so he finds a balance between the funny, entertaining villain and the hideously emotionless murderer.

Ever since The Godfather, Pacino sky-rocketed into a legend in the cinematic crime business. It is a genre where veteran actors like Pacino can star with a polished persona; a persona that just seems so perfect for the general atmosphere of the film because it has already been perfected in other movies. Pacino carries a gun again in Donnie Brasco as Lefty Ruggiero, a small-time hitman who constantly feels disappointment in the state of his lifestyle. The film takes place in the seventies and a man like Lefty has lived the crime life for a while now. Lefty has killed many men, but life in the mafia seems gradually less worthwhile as time goes by. To compensate for his failures and regrets, he takes Donnie (who is actually Joseph Pistone, an undercover FBI agent) under his wing in hopes of seeing Donnie succeed in the mafia where he has not.

Pacino's performance in Donnie Brasco is similar to his performance in The Godfather: Part III, but unlike Andy Garcia, Johnny Depp dominates the screen as much as Pacino does. There is a convincing brightness about Depp's Donnie that Garcia failed to capture as Vincent Mancini. Pacino and Depp work as a duo in this film, rather than the film being entirely an one-man show. Director Mike Newell follows Depp's FBI agent with dedication and concern, but it never forgets to remind us that Lefty is an integral part to the hero's success. Nothing is ever black or white as we see Donnie gradually develop a deep sense of appreciation for his mentor.

Near the end of the film, there is a scene where Lefty is basically walking toward a death trap. Although the film isn't clear about the fate of Lefty, we know that Lefty is leaving himself for the sharks. (In real life, Lefty was locked up in prison and later released when he was dying from cancer.) But the audience saw it coming all along, ever since the moment he formed a friendship with a FBI agent who was seemingly disguised as a young, ambitious wiseguy. But in that particular scene where Lefty is leaving everything behind sums up why an actor like Pacino can continuously play the role of the guy with the gun: He knows how it's properly done. There are moments in many of his films where Pacino escapes the authoritative persona and finally let the human qualities sink in.

The Insider has all the winning qualities of an investigative drama: It is honest, fearless, and inspiring. In the spirit of movies like All the President's Men and JFK, director Michael Mann's film is sleek and professional and should have easily won the Best Picture Oscar over the blatantly shallow American Beauty (and any of the other films nominated in the category that year). Of course, it would be a lie for me to say that Russell Crowe's Jeffrey Wingand isn't the basis of the film, but Pacino's Lowell Bergman is the guy who grabs hold of every single detail and never lets go. This time around, Pacino plays the good guy and all he wants is the right to expose the truth.

Like Roger Ebert said, Pacino's Bergman is "Woodward and Bernstein rolled into one." Bergman has a hot story with a solid interview to go along with it, but CBS network refuses to run it on television's "60 Minutes." It is too controversial, too risky. What is contained in the interview are secrets of the tobacco industry, secrets the top tobacco execs want to leave in the dark. Because of his time at the lab, Wingand poses as a threat to Big Tobacco because he knows that the tobacco industry is making cigarettes more addictive, despite the well-known health hazards. If CBS decide to run it, they face a multi-million dollar lawsuit that might cripple the network.

As Wingand's disintegrating marriage and lifestyle is played out on-screen, Bergman works at the sidelines to reveal the truth, however threatening or dangerous. Bergman is the kind of man you respect, mainly because he has a steady job and family, but also because he can never keep his nose out of his work. Works is life and life is work for people like Bergman. There is a desperation about Pacino's Bergman--a kind of harrowing, unbelievable workaholic quality. Bergman is mainly the behind-the-scenes hero, exactly the kind of television producer to prompt an average guy like Wingand to the levels of reverence and prominence.

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