Donnie Brasco
directed by Mike Newell
(Sony/TriStar, 1997)

Lefty Ruggiero is a wise guy who does some pretty foolish things. Chief among them is bringing an FBI informant into the mob.

Mistakes like that can shorten your career. They can also supercharge a film. In the case of Donnie Brasco, they accomplish both.

Donnie Brasco is that rarest of Hollywood films -- one that outstrips its own hype.

From its image-heavy opening to its final shot of Lefty sitting in a chair waiting for his final phone call, Donnie Brasco offers us a rare glimpse at the underside of organized crime.

Vito Corleone lived in a mansion surrounded by guards, held meetings in board rooms that put banks to shame and earned enough money to buy Las Vegas.

Lefty Ruggiero eats his dinner at a TV table in a low-rent apartment and struggles to make ends meet. He's offed 26 people for his bosses when the movie starts, more by the time it's over.

And yet he's a likable kind of a guy, one who would give you the shirt off his back if he hadn't already had to borrow yours.

He knows all the rules -- he's practically a walking-talking crime school -- but they don't seem to do him much good. Thirty years he's worked for the mob, but when the big promotion comes along, does he get it?

No, not Lefty. Lefty seems doomed to remain a member of Mafia middle management.

Until he meets Donnie.

In Donnie (Johnny Depp), Lefty sees everything he never became in the mob: a smooth talker, a fast riser, a guy with crime skills that are simply to die for, an asset he can bring to his struggling gang.

Donnie has only one drawback: he serves two masters, neither of which is very fond of the other. And while his personal loyalty goes to Lefty, professionally he remains true to his school -- the FBI Academy.

That, fortunately, is only one of the conflicts that drives Donnie Brasco, a true story based on the work of FBI informant Joe Pistone. Director Mike Newell offers us a host of others, not the least of which is the marital discord caused by Donnie's two years working undercover.

More importantly, Newell draws on the energy that flows back and forth between Pacino and Depp every time they come together on the screen.

Only a few actors have the ability to surprise audiences. By bringing two of them together, Newell adds to the overriding tension of the story, putting us in the hands of two people who are liable to do just about anything, any time, anywhere. And they do.

Not everything Newell tries works, especially when he goes for the symbolic: His recurring "spying eyes" image, or Lefty watching wildlife documentaries in which one predator is always pouncing on another. The first seems out of place in an otherwise low-key film; the second is simply heavy-handed.

But after 20-plus years of cop buddy films, it's refreshing to see Hollywood tackling something new: the wise guy buddy film.

And tackling it so well.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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