Al in the Family

The ingredients are familiar: Donnie Brasco stars Al Pacino as a Mafia soldier and Johnny Depp as an FBI undercover agent who infiltrates the mob. But there's a twist. Based on a true story, the film is a grunt's-eye view of the Mafia, and it's not remotely "operatic" or Scorsese-ish. The director, Mike Newell, is English (he's best known for Dance with a Stranger and Four Weddings and a Funeral), and he doesn't check into this material with the heavy baggage of an American director. His straight-ahead style is deliberately dour -- as if to announce the film's separation from its antecedents.

We may expect more sweep and flourish from our crime thrillers now, not only because of the work of such directors as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola but also because of such TV cop shows as NYPD Blue and Homicide. (Paul Attanasio, the screenwriter of Donnie Brasco, was one of the creators of Homicide; and one of the film's producers, Gail Mutrux, developed that series.) What Newell wants us to recognize is that the high stylishness of American crime movies and TV shows is really a con. If you want the unglorified "truth" about the crime world, you need to jettison the fancy camera moves and Caravaggio lighting and Verdi-esque drama.

I'm not really sold on this agenda, at least not in theory. A great gangster movie by, say, Coppola or Scorsese has more resonance and emotional power -- more "truth" -- than anything in Donnie Brasco. Still, I don't think Newell is necessarily wrong to turn down the volume. We've probably all become a little sick of operatic crime movies. The fancy capework is at the service of the same old bull. Even Scorsese, in long stretches of Goodfellas and practically all of Casino, has been spinning his wheels in high gear. Newell's film, by contrast, doesn't wear us out, so we're more likely to pick up on its modest virtues: the way it brings out the hair-trigger terrors of the undercover life and the deep-down friendship that gradually develops between Pacino's "Lefty" Ruggiero and Depp's Joe Pistone, known to the Mafia as Donnie Brasco during his six years undercover, starting in 1978. (His work resulted in more than 100 organized crime convictions.)

Donnie Brasco promotes itself as a "character-driven" crime movie. Despite the gunplay and the usual crime-movie high jinks, it's essentially about the connection between Lefty, a washed-out hit man and Mafia enforcer, and "Donnie," who genuinely cares for the mentor he knows he will one day betray. Just about everything in Donnie Brasco is familiar: the mob hits, the tough-talk lingo, the goombah tirades. (Besides Pacino, the chief goombahs are played by Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, and James Russo.)

What keeps you watching is Pacino's performance. Of course, he's played Mafiosi before; he even played a Shakespearean Mafioso: Richard III. But he's up to something new in Donnie Brasco. His thug is a bit of a stumblebum; he wears his gangster accoutrements -- the overcoats and shades and weaponry -- with a weary aplomb. Lefty reveres the underbosses and captains who have disdain for him; their power confers meaning on his dismal life. He lives in a crummy apartment in the projects in Brooklyn. His son, who lives with him, is a junkie. When Donnie comes along, passing himself off as an orphan and a jewel thief, Lefty takes up the young man's cause, schooling him in mob ways, bringing him into his home for Christmas dinner. "This is your family," he tells Donnie of the Mafia, and he means it without irony.

Pacino gets inside Lefty's dank, imploring soul. Lefty postures a lot for Donnie because he wants to show off how tough he is. It's not an act, exactly; Lefty claims 26 hits. But he's even more interested in showing Donnie that he's not a killer inside. It's just a job -- nothing personal.

Donnie Brasco would have been a more complex movie if we had been exposed to the real Lefty in the book Pistone wrote about his exploits. That book, Donnie Brasco: A True Story by Agent Joseph D. Pistone, reads like a crash course in how to infiltrate the mob; it contains passages with Lefty discussing the marvelous ricochet effect of a .22-caliber bullet inside a victim's cranium. In the movie Lefty is a killer in the same way someone else might be a dishwasher repairman, and, although there is probably a large measure of truth in this assumption, it still sentimentalizes him for us. It doesn't allow for the blank space in this killer's heart. Pacino's Lefty is a sad sack with a heart of gold.

What gives the performance its power is that Pacino isn't content to leave it at that. There's a terrific sequence in which Lefty has just executed a mob buddy he believes (incorrectly) to be a snitch, and Donnie calls him on it. In the car ride back from the crime scene, Donnie tries to get Lefty to say the guy's name, to humanize the victim and claim responsibility for the horror. In moments such as these, Pacino has the bewildered look of a man who knows, though he's not sure exactly why, that there's retribution waiting out there for him. And deep inside his bones he knows why.

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