Is this a great business or what? Review: An over-the-hill mobster takes a young wiseguy under his wing.

February 28, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The mob. The FBI. A guy working for the feds is embraced by gangsters. Wiseguys cracking people's heads. Wiretaps. A wife who sees her husband maybe a few dozen times a year. Money, lots of it.

With all that, how can you lose?

Not to mention the mobster is a sad-sack, years-beyond-his-prime grunt played with doe-eyed pathos by Al Pacino. And the barely-under-control FBI agent, who's finding life as a mobster infinitely more interesting than life as a husband, father and lawman, is the ever-unpredictable Johnny Depp.

You know this has to be good. Indeed, "Donnie Brasco" is a tour-de-force for Pacino and another brick in the foundation Depp is building as one of Hollywood's most adventurous actors.

If director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") is occasionally so concerned with atmosphere that he forgets to move the story along, if the absentee-husband storyline gets short shrift, those are small prices to pay for the joy of seeing actors so on top of their game.

Small prices, too, for the joy of listening to Paul Attanasio's script, which makes the wiseguy lingo practically a co-star.

Depp is Joe Pistone, a real-life undercover agent for the FBI who, as the film opens, already has spent two years trying to worm his way into the Brooklyn mob. Pacino is Lefty Ruggiero, an aging hit-man who's never made it to the big time. One day, he spies Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, sitting at a lunch counter and sees his last chance for glory.

Something about Brasco yells "comer" to Lefty. This kid is destined to be somebody when it comes to the Mob. If Lefty can be the one to bring him along, teach him the business, vouch for him with the big boys and make sure he doesn't shoot off his mouth -- in short, if he can turn Donnie into the son he wishes he'd had, then Lefty Ruggiero can be somebody, too.

He can be the guy who brought Donnie Brasco into the business.

The irony, of course, is that bringing Donnie into the mob doesn't guarantee Lefty a legacy. It guarantees that Lefty will end up sleeping with the fishes.

The other irony is Joe Pistone is starting to like all this stuff. He likes the excitement, the Mob camaraderie. He likes it better than dealing with a wife (Anne Heche in a very good performance), who believes marriage means actually spending time together.

As Pistone/Brasco, Depp does a good job of acting conflicted, without appearing lost. He knows his job, and he does it well. But his dueling loyalties constantly threaten to get the best of him, and he's finding it hard to live with the realization that he actually likes Lefty -- and that their relationship can only lead to tragedy.

But "Donnie Brasco" is really Al Pacino's film, and he's wonderful. Lefty Ruggiero is Michael Corleone without the breaks, a man who's devoted his life to one job, and, as his reward, gets passed over at promotion time. Lefty never questions the life he leads, only the decisions of his bosses. He likes knocking people's heads and hanging around the big bucks, doesn't really complain when he's left trying to split open a parking meter with a hammer. It's a living, ain't it?

As Pacino has progressed in his career, his tendency to overplay has become more and more pronounced. His persistent emoting in "The Godfather, Part III" helped sink that film in its own pomposity; his high-decibel rantings in "Scent of a Woman," despite winning him an Oscar, actually made for one of his least-compelling performances.

But "Donnie Brasco" suffers from none of those indulgences. In fact, his last scene in the film is one of Pacino's finest moments on film.

'Donnie Brasco'

Starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp

Directed by Mike Newell

Released by Tri-Star Pictures

Rated R (violence, language)

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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