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'Donnie Brasco': OKfellas

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 28, 1997

"Donnie Brasco" is entertaining in bursts. How could it not be with Al Pacino playing a gangster? But any movie featuring Italian American dons, wise guys and a bevy of such expressions as "forget about it" (pronounced "fuhgedabowdid") will be compared, inevitably, to the superior gangster pictures of Francis Ford Coppola (the "Godfather" movies) and Martin Scorsese ("GoodFellas"). In this respect, "Donnie Brasco," based on the true story of FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone, comes up conspicuously short.

The mobsters in "Donnie Brasco" (including Pacino, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby and James Russo) are the grunts and gripers of the Mafia. They’re part of a bigger power struggle, in 1970s New York, which is often out of their control.

Undercover agent Pistone (Johnny Depp) is sent to infiltrate New York’s Bonanno crime family. Posing as a black-market jewel seller called Donnie Brasco, he strikes up a relationship with Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino), a senior hit man in the Mafia. Donnie impresses Lefty immediately when he convinces the veteran hoodlum that a diamond ring he just picked up is fake. Lefty is so grateful, he practically adopts him.

"Nobody can touch you now," he tells Donnie. "I’m your man."

With Lefty as his goombah and Mafia tour guide, Donnie learns the ways, customs and language of the Bonanno world. When a gangster introduces someone as a "friend of mine," Lefty explains, it means the newcomer is a "connected guy." But if that someone is introduced as "a friend of ours," it means he’s a "made guy" and therefore completely protected.

Although he’s protected by Lefty, Donnie’s mission becomes the scariest ordeal of his life. He witnesses executions, participates in post-killing cleanup (are you ready for bodies being sawed?), and runs the risk of being discovered at any moment.

Depp, a hunk with talent rather than an actor, is a rather passive hero with formulaic moral quandaries. As Donnie, he has gained the love and trust of someone he’s actively deceiving. And if the Mafia discovers Donnie’s true identity, the agent and Lefty will be killed. The agent’s total immersion in the underworld also causes estrangement with his wife (Anne Heche) who, for reasons unclear to me, seems surprised and upset that FBI undercover work takes her husband out of the house so often.

Screenwriter Paul Attanasio (who wrote the adroit "Quiz Show") cooks up an entertaining bevy of mobster behavior and language, but he isn’t doing much more than reheating and re-spicing familiar movie material. For all its treacheries, twists and turns, nothing really comes as a surprise.

There is no law that says an Englishman is automatically incapable of handling American underworld matters, but director Mike Newell (best known for "Four Weddings and a Funeral") is not the person for the job. The movie’s disappointingly straightforward, with no discernible flair.

He’s lucky to have Pacino, who dominates every scene he’s in. As a sort of romantic loser, he’s tremendous. At one point, he gives Donnie a Christmas envelope with money in it, only to ask the undercover agent to loan him a few bucks. At the grimmest of moments he always has something to say. When he learns that there has been a takeover, in which his don has been assassinated, he gets upset that he was kept in the dark.

"Whacking the boss," he laments. "Another thing I get left out of."

DONNIE BRASCO (R) — Contains sexual situations, nudity, profanity and extreme violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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