There’s a great little moment in the gangster film ”Donnie Brasco” that shows Al Pacino preparing to meet the Godfather. Fine, we’ve seen that before. But this Mr. Pacino is different: aging, weary, drab, down on his luck though desperately eager to please. Trying to put his best foot forward, he stands dutifully amid a crowd of low-level Mafiosi. The boss walks by without giving him a look.
It’s a sharp, clever encounter, overturning all manner of genre cliches and viewer expectations. And the crackling good ”Donnie Brasco,” the best crime movie in a long while, is full of similar surprises as it leads Mr. Pacino and Johnny Depp through a fine-tuned tale of deception. Surprise No. 1: Mr. Depp’s tremendous talent is no longer surprising. With this film his career reaches critical mass, turning an assortment of varied, offbeat roles into the trajectory of a major star.
Mr. Depp is not alone in being in the right place at the right time with ”Donnie Brasco.” It’s also an affirmation that the director, Mike Newell, has a gift for talkative, intelligent films that make his actors shine. Whether in sunny Italy (”Enchanted April”), mystical Ireland (”Into the West”), nuptial-mad England (”Four Weddings and a Funeral”) or now in the tacky realm of the American gangster, Mr. Newell can make the most out of tartly fine acting and good conversation. (His last film, ”An Awfully Big Adventure,” failed miserably because its backstage theatrical milieu, arch tone and English accents traveled badly. It’s worth a second look.)
”Donnie Brasco” is also a boon to Mr. Pacino, who brings such color and pathos to a story that automatically invokes the breadth of his own career. Whether in the mob (you know where) or undercover (”Serpico”), he has been here before as the brash young man, and now he graduates to the kind of senior status that is a character actor’s field day. A whole world of second thoughts about the gangster’s game can be found in the small strokes of his performance here. And Mr. Pacino’s reward for passing a generational torch to Mr. Depp is the chance to team up with a young actor on the same wavelength. These two stars have such good, macho chemistry that their scenes together really shoot off sparks.
As Donnie Brasco, a man who doesn’t exist, Mr. Depp turns tough so easily and charismatically that it’s easy to forget he was ever Gilbert Grape or Edward Scissorhands. Donnie is actually Joe Pistone, the undercover F.B.I. agent who infiltrated the Bonnano family in the late 1970’s and upon whose memoir Paul Attanasio’s screenplay is based. (Mr. Attanasio, who wrote ”Quiz Show,” is also in fine form.) Donnie’s initial mission is to befriend Lefty Ruggiero, the over-the-hill hit man played by Mr. Pacino with a mixture of regret and indignation over his career progress. ”Twenty-six guys I clipped,” Lefty complains. ”Do I get upped? No, they pass me by!”
The first meeting between Donnie and Lefty sets the tone for the long, artful two-man exchanges that separate this mob movie from the many others it resembles. In a bar, Donnie pretends to be a jewel expert and convinces Lefty that the new diamond Lefty just bought is fake. Without further ado Lefty scoops up Donnie, takes him to a different joint and confronts the seller, whom Donnie roughs up as a matter of mob etiquette. Before leaving with the seller’s car in tow, Donnie stuffs some money in the man’s mouth to pay a bar bill.
”Why’d you pay for that drink, Don?” Lefty asks paternally. ”Wise guys never pay for a drink.”
”You know something?” Donnie soon boasts, when he meets F.B.I. agents in a place the mob would never look (a kosher restaurant). ”I got him. I got my hooks in the guy.” But it’s the other way around. Lefty begins fouling up the plan by welcoming and instructing Donnie as his surrogate son, since Lefty’s real son is no good. And Donnie grows increasingly fond of the irresistible Lefty. But the undercover man also knows, throughout ”Donnie Brasco,” that Lefty will be the one to pay the price for Donnie’s treachery when the F.B.I. scam is eventually exposed.
That prospect gives the film dramatic tension, as does the threat that Donnie’s new mobster friends will catch him in a lie. There are well-timed bubbles of suspicion that deliberately stop the story, which otherwise has all the rowdy wise guy color that its genre requires. Michael Madsen (just right as an imposing new boss), Bruno Kirby and James Russo are the other gang members closest to Lefty and Donnie, and they share the small-time ethos that gives the film its distinctive flavor.
Even when — especially when — these guys strike it big and go from Brooklyn to Florida, they have no class. In one funny throwaway, they show up looking sporty in favorite loud polyesters and wind up in a melee on the tennis court. Mr. Newell may not have been at home in Brooklyn, but he is certainly enough of a humorist and anthropologist for this.
Mr. Depp moves through the film with a brand-new hardboiled grace to give it heat, and a more familiar conscience-stricken sensitivity to keep it interesting. Anne Heche does well with what could have been the thankless role of Joe Pistone’s wife, who is left to mind three children and shovel snow for months at a time while Joe is busy being Donnie Brasco. One quick, impassioned visit is all this character-driven film needs to show why these two are still married. But as an added bonus, they are seen visiting a counselor together. Donnie is not exactly inclined to let a jargon-spouting therapist tell him what to do.
Like all gangster films, ”Donnie Brasco” finally runs into unwelcome reality, turning cruel and bloody in ways that leave audience sympathy in the lurch. In the end it’s a sordid and deadly story. But along the way, it’s full of life.
”Donnie Brasco” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian). It includes violence, profanity and one very brief sexual situation.
Directed by Mike Newell; written by Paul Attanasio, based on the book by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley; director of photography, Peter Sova; edited by Jon Gregory; music by Patrick Doyle; production designer, Donald Graham Burt; produced by Mark Johnson, Barry Levinson, Louis DiGiaimo and Gail Mutrux; released by Tri-Star. Running time: 121 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Al Pacino (Lefty), Johnny Depp (Donnie), Michael Madsen (Sonny), Bruno Kirby (Nicky), James Russo (Paulie) and Anne Heche (Maggie).
“Starting in 1978, FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone is assigned to infiltrate the New York City–based Bonanno crime family. Calling himself Donnie Brasco and posing as a jewel thief expert from Vero Beach, Florida, he befriends Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, a low-level mob hit man whose personal life is in tatters, and Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, the captain of Lefty’s crew.
Lefty can’t seem to make enough money, his son is a drug addict and he is continually passed over for promotion to a higher position within the crime family. He continually reminds Brasco of his growing disillusionment about having spent 30 years as a wiseguy (and killing 26 people), with little to show for it.
In Donnie, at least, Lefty sees a young protégé who might be able to succeed where he failed. He takes Donnie under his wing. Donnie quickly becomes accepted by the other family members, as an “associate” (the lowest Mafia rank describing people who have criminal ties to the Mafia but are not actual members) and is later nearly officially inducted into the mob as a “made man.”
The longer Pistone plays the role of a gangster, the more he finds himself actually becoming Donnie Brasco during his rare off-duty hours. His long absences and change in personality drive a wedge between Pistone and his wife and three children. Meanwhile, the slightest mistake in his performance as a mobster could result in death to him and his family.
In addition, Pistone has come to regard Lefty as a close and trusted friend. He knows that when the day finally comes that the FBI arrests his mob associates, he will be ending Lefty’s life as surely as if he himself had killed him.”