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'Brasco': Just One of the Gang

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 28, 1997

"Donnie Brasco," a sluggish sojourn amid the Mafia's bottom-feeders, does a bang-up job of deglamorizing the mob, which, contrary to what civilians might think, ain't all spaghetti sauce, Sinatra songs and horses' heads. Strip away the mobster mythos, the macho posturing and the so-called Family values, as the movie does, and you find empty cannelloni.

Consider the plight of Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), an aging hit man with no prospect of promotion, no pension plan, no nuthin' despite 30 years of loyal service to the Bonanno family. Even with 26 hits on his resume, Lefty is hardly a top Bonanno. Upon reflection, he's beginning to think maybe he made the wrong career choice.

Things are no better at home, a small apartment he shares with his doormat of a wife and his drug-addicted son. He can barely make the rent, much less provide his family with the luxuries he feels they deserve. And if that isn't enough already, the wizened wiseguy claims to have been diagnosed with cancer of the penis.

Lefty is easy pickings for Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp), an FBI agent whose book, "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia," is the basis for this true story. Masquerading as a Miami-based jewel thief, Joe uses Lefty to infiltrate the Brooklyn branch of Crime Inc.

All the while, the hero tries to keep an emotional distance between himself and Lefty, but he grows increasingly attached to the vulnerable older man. The more Joe learns about his new Family, the clearer it becomes that he's sentenced his friend Lefty to death.

And for what? Justice? What do those bastards at the FBI know about justice?

Suddenly Donnie doesn't know whose side he's on. As the old Sicilian wives say: "If youse swim with duh fishes, youse pick up dere stink."

The notion is a staple of cops-and-robbers movies, almost as commonplace as the pounding profanity of the bleeping dialogue. Though screenwriter Paul Attanasio ("Quiz Show") and director Mike Newell have gone out of their way to make a different kind of mob movie, they've peopled it with all the usual suspects in many of the usual situations.

Newell, who previously directed the romantic farces "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Enchanted April," plays down the action and focuses on the bond between the main characters. Unfortunately, the story isn't inventive and Newell's methodical approach to it verges on monotony. Though there's way too much navel-gazing, the film draws strength from Pacino and Depp's accomplished pas de deux.

Newell does make mobstering look like drudgery, but then so did the lightning-quick satire "Pulp Fiction." Both films also demonstrate the idiocy and sadism of gangdom, though Quentin Tarantino managed to do so with enormous ingenuity and sick panache. Drawn from pulp fact, "Donnie Brasco" is limited to the realities of thuggery, the greedy dreams of your run-of-the-mill goombahs.

Donnie Brasco is rated R for violence, profanity and adult situations.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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