"Donnie Brasco"

With Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in top form, "Donnie Brasco" is smarter than the average mob movie.


Charles Taylor
March 29, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

the new mob drama "Donnie Brasco" is the story of a federal agent (Johnny Depp) who goes undercover to bring down the mob and winds up bonding with the man (Al Pacino) he has to betray. That subject has already been done so indelibly in the first season of "Wiseguy" that it's hard to see how any other treatment could go deeper.

"Donnie Brasco" doesn't. The pleasure of the movie is the smarts and craft provided by the director, Mike Newell, and the screenwriter, Paul Attanasio (working from the book by federal agent Joseph Pistone, written with Richard Woodley). And if it's always clear where the story's headed, there's nothing predictable about how Depp, as Pistone (a k a Donnie Brasco), and Pacino, as his small-time wise guy mentor, Lefty Ruggiero, get there. You wouldn't mistake "Donnie Brasco" for a great movie or an important one, but it's something that's become almost as rare in American movies: a consistently absorbing and intelligent adult entertainment.

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The emotional impact that the movie accumulates is all the more impressive when you realize how clear-eyed it is. "Donnie Brasco" is set among the mid-levels of New York's Bonnano family during the late '70s and early '80s. Watching the wise guys milling around outside the family hangout, hoping to catch a word of approval from the big shots, may remind you of the dock workers in "On the Waterfront" angling to get a day's pay from the foreman. But Newell and Attanasio don't ask us to sympathize with these men. And they're not making the movie to get jacked up on the garish show-biz style of their hoods, the way Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Pileggi were in "Goodfellas" and "Casino."

Newell and Attanasio aren't living out any fantasies here, and they don't allow their actors -- among them Bruno Kirby, and Michael Madsen as Donnie and Lefty's big, scary boss -- to degenerate into gangster schtick. We see these wise guys for what they are: paunchy, middle-aged men living out their own ruthless version of the old macho hokum about honor and loyalty, as well as the American credo of success. The perks of gangster life -- the clothes and women and cash -- make them feel like big shots.

There's something almost comically small-time about the conventions these hoods observe, like the Christmas exchange of Hallmark cards stuffed with hundreds. Depp and Pacino turn the traditions into flawless deadpan routines. There's an element of ridiculousness in the way Lefty walks Donnie through Little Italy, meticulously instructing him on how wise guys dress, talk, carry their money. Or the way Donnie later conjugates the various wise-guy meanings of the phrase "Forget about it" for the benefit of two fellow agents.

It's been thrilling to watch Pacino's work with younger actors in the last few years. Seeing him with Sean Penn in "Carlito's Way" or with John Cusack in "City Hall," you could feel a thread being spun from one generation of American actors to the next. That's the same feeling that informed Pacino's scenes with Marlon Brando in "The Godfather." "Donnie Brasco" is the best in this series of duets.

Lefty can believe that he's a somebody when he's one-on-one with Donnie, ushering him into the mob world or playing host to him on Christmas Day in his shabby apartment. Among his cronies, he has to face how he's failed to rise in the organization and, when he's passed over in favor of Donnie, that he's never going to. The role offers an actor a dozen different opportunities to go soft. Pacino doesn't, even when Attanasio hands him a "What have I got to show for all my years" speech.

This is the warmest acting Pacino's ever done. Lefty is the hood with feeling, a sentimental conception that Pacino dries out and makes three-dimensional. He's vulnerable to Donnie, whom he sees as a surrogate son (his own is a junkie). If Donnie's cover is blown, it'll be Lefty who pays for bringing him into the family. Pacino carries all of Lefty's disappointments and weariness in his stoop-shouldered gait, and all of his emotion in those huge, dark, baggy eyes. Pacino knows that sentimentalizing the character would cheapen him. His final scene is all the more heartbreaking for the economy of gesture and feeling he brings it. It's an exit that does justice to both the actor and the role, and it leaves an ache in the movie.

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In his book, Pistone (who's now living under an assumed name and who still has a half-million-dollar contract on his head) acknowledges the toll his job took on his wife and daughters but says that he has no regrets about what he did. It's curious, though, that the book's last word belongs to Lefty Ruggiero. Pistone imagines a conversation that ends with Lefty asking him, "If you did so good exposing us, Donnie, whyzit you and your family gotta live a coverup for the rest of your lives?" Depp takes his cue from those doubts. For all the movie's intelligence and craft, I can't imagine it working without him. It's a sensational performance. "Donnie Brasco" is Depp's first fully adult role.

Here Depp is miles away from the dreamy, romantic presence of the gentle oddballs in "Edward Scissorhands," "Benny and Joon" and "Don Juan DeMarco." Yet this performance is a stunning reminder of the way actors carry their personalities with them from role to role. The movie hums with the tension of casting an instinctively expressive actor as a man whose life depends on being able to control his reactions. It's unsettling because you can't divorce your memories of that sweet young actor from this man who looks as if he's being eaten alive from the inside out. Forced to take part in beatings, witnessing killings and disposing of the bodies, Pistone recedes into manufactured Mafioso role. Depp restricts his usual soft speaking voice to clipped, nearly grunted syllables. Even his cheeks seem to be hollowing out before our eyes. Depp's Pistone learns to play "Donnie" so instinctively that he begins slipping into the role around his wife, Maggie (Anne Heche). And Depp makes you feel his fear that Joe Pistone won't find his way back.

The scenes between Depp and Heche (who has the deceptively soft and pliant look of a `30s ingenue and gives a spiky, tenacious performance) have the prickly tension of real, unresolvable marital conflict. Maggie's character isn't an afterthought in the male world of the movie. She's its reality check. Pistone loves this woman because she's as tough as he is. And that's what puts the marriage in jeopardy when he becomes more of an absence than a presence to his family. Implicit in these scenes is that Pistone is as caught up in this fantasy world as the hoods he's working against.

The good guys win in "Donnie Brasco." Joe Pistone's undercover work resulted in dozens of convictions, and the moviemakers don't pretend it didn't make a difference. But there's no triumph here. The feds seem as oblivious to the human cost of their work as the mob is. Between an aging hood flushed into the open and a young cop forced into hiding, the cost of winning just seems too damn high.

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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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