Opened: Friday, February 28, 1997 | Rated: R
Johnny Depp and director Mike Newell, who have both been looking for departures from their stock movie images, have found their vehicle in "Donnie Brasco," a standard-issue mobster movie that rises above the mire of its shopworn genre by showing the cracks in its characters' armor.
Depp, who needed to break away from his penchant for the quirky and bizarre in movies like "Benny and Joon" and "Ed Wood," stars as an FBI man so deep under cover inside the Mafia that he loses himself in his assumed identity.
Newell, who was in danger of being stuck in a romantic comedy rut after scoring with "Four Weddings and a Funeral," proves that you don't have to be Martin Scorsese to make an engaging, provocative film about the inner workings of the mob.
Based on an autobiography by ex-federal agent Joseph Pistone, "Donnie Brasco" focuses on the internal struggle of a man who has settled into the mobster life while working to bust the mob -- and trying to maintain some semblance of family life with his wife and kids.
Depp has this conflict in his eyes in every scene and his Joe Pistone seems ever in danger of succumbing to the Donnie Brasco identity he uses to infiltrate the infamous Bonanno family in the late 1970s.
The struggle arises out of the friendship he forms with his first mob contact, Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a anxious, mid-level lieutenant in the family who spends his life projecting tough while sucking up to the boss and looking over his shoulder.
This kind of role invariably goes to Pachino or Robert De Niro (without one of them on board the movie would likely have been shelved) and while it may be his career albatross, Pachino could play nothing but 1970s mobsters for the rest of his life and it would never get old to us. He is gold in this role.
Lefty starts out as an easy mark in Donnie's eyes, bringing him into the mob out of hasty friendship. "Nobody can touch you because I represent you," Lefty promises.
Donnie, with a cassette recorder forever hidden in his boots, quickly moves up in the organization, eventually being promoted over Lefty, whose lot in life seems to be remaining on a lower rung.
But in his deep cover Joe Pistone, the agent and father, starts to disappear. In the course of three years he visits home only a few times. The infrequency leads to fights with his wife (the wonderful but little-known Anne Heche), each one becoming less like a man and wife spat and more like a mobster smacking around his moll.
Newell's focus on Pistone's domestic problems adds vital dimension to "Donnie Brasco" that makes up for his tippy-toeing around Donnie's endeavors in crime, apparently for the sake of maintaining sympathy.
Donnie sets up meetings a lot and is told to stay in the car a lot. The only time we see him move beyond talking tough is when he helps beat up a maitre d' at a Japanese restaurant who nearly blows his cover by insisting that he observe tradition by taking off his boots (remember the tape recorder).
The film takes a while to find its rhythm but builds a consuming tension that envelops the last two acts. Newell yields to a few cheap techniques brought with him from his lighter fare -- a musical montage condenses Donnie's mob initiation into a few shots of money and violence cut with a close-ups of a typewriter documenting his evidence -- but it is because of his direction that "Donnie Brasco" isn't just a cookie-cutter mob flick like "Casino" turned out to be. Newell's attention to the absorbing relationships makes up for his inexperience with this kind of story.
Donnie feels obligated to Lefty on the one hand and his family on the other, and eventually is estranged from both of them. Joe the agent manages to feign equilibrium until the moment his wife spits at him "You're becoming like them!"
"I am them," he answers solemnly.
"Donnie Brasco" would make a worthy closing chapter on the 1970-nostalgia mob flick. Surely the genre has now been exhausted. Of course, I that's what I thought going into this film, and it seems I was wrong.