Donnie Brasco

on February 28, 1997 by Bridget Byrne
When Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a sad-sack minor-league mobster, gets time away from his kiss-ass duties to the wiseguys, he likes to slump in his lounger watching nature movies--the kind in which beast eats beast. We get the picture, but the wild animals on Lefty's TV screen are on the whole a prettier bunch than the gangsters who make up his particular rat pack--or they were before agent Joseph D. Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco (a sweet-faced Johnny Depp), came along. We can forgive the wild animals their natural habits, but it's hard to develop any sympathy for the film's nasty manipulative humans, despite the best efforts of all involved in this newest slant on the mean-streets crowd (based on the real-life experiences of Pistone, who moled his way into the mob).
   Like its title character, a man who became a criminal in order to nab the bad guys, the latest from director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") wants it both ways. It tries to get moviegoers hooked but is a bit too cool to do so. It wants you to be sucker-punched yet keep your reason. It expertly recreates scenes of late l970s New York and Florida yet, careful not to seem time warped, it somehow downplays period detail, despite a proliferation of pointed shirt collars. It's kind of grim, yet full of unkind humor that is nevertheless funny. It's gruesome and violent but more interested in motivation than action and at times almost turgid as it dwells on character at the expense of all else.
   Like its protagonist, "Donnie Brasco" doesn't really know where its heart lies. It's not sure about what really counts and so ultimately it doesn't much matter in the vast schemes of things. Pacino, his face now almost the perfect mask of comedy and tragedy, clearly relishes this chance to be scuzzy, but he lets rip only now and then. Stuck with portraying a man who must keep his true feelings undercover, Depp is convincing but not as fascinating as he usually is; the script denies his character full-bodied complexity. Together onscreen, these two naturally compelling actors are fine, but their pairing is just missing some je ne sais quoi, so this Mandalay production seems to be conjuring tricks rather than real magic, a real flaw in a film that pins its best hopes of uniqueness on the characters' cross-generational, cross-wired relationship. Anne Heche ("Walking and Talking") does her best with a long-suffering wife role, and seasoned faces like Bruno Kirby, James Russo and Michael Madsen strut their stuff with ease as various levels of evildoer. Starring Al Pacino, Johnny Depp and Anne Heche. Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Paul Attanasio. Produced by Mark Johnson, Barry Levinson, Louis DiGiaimo and Gail Mutrux. A TriStar release. Drama. Rated R for some strong graphic violence, pervasive strong language and brief nudity and sexuality. Running time: 121 min.
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