Movie Review - Donnie Brasco
'Donnie Brasco' reinvents mobster film

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Just when you thought the mobster movie had been done to death, along comes Donnie Brasco to rewrite the formula.

Based on the experiences of a real undercover FBI agent, the movie is about a man whose devotion to his job nearly costs him everything.

The undercover cop who gets in too deep is a familiar figure in crime stories, but the makers of Donnie Brasco have reinvented the tale as an unadorned human tragedy, stripped of glamour and leavened with humor. (Note the speech on the various meanings of ''fuggedaboudit.'')

Director Mike Newell -- an Englishman best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral -- is aided by an outstanding script from Paul Attanasio, the writer of Quiz Show and co-creator of NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets. The movie's co-producers include Mark Johnson and director Barry Levinson, who together made such tasty hits as Rain Man, Diner and Good Morning, Vietnam.

As the agent -- real name, Joe Pistone -- Johnny Depp sheds the burden of his teen-idol looks with a grounded, adult performance. He is a man who eagerly descends into the ugly world of the New York Mafia, full of gung-ho excitement as he edges closer to the mob hierarchy. Like an athlete who can smell victory, he pays no heed to the punishment he absorbs.

The price is evident when he slips back home to see his wife (Anne Heche, in a fine, attention-getting performance) and his children. They are bitter, alienated, angry. They don't know who he is anymore, and it becomes clear that he doesn't either.

Donnie's guide into the underworld is Lefty, an aging hit man who has nothing to show for his years of mob servitude. Al Pacino gives Lefty all the street wisdom and Brooklyn bravado that we expect, but throws out the blustering, shouting, mannered excesses that elsewhere have come perilously close to self-parody.

The result is a hateful man who inspires pity, even sympathy, as he forges a pathetic version of a father-son relationship with Donnie.

The outstanding supporting cast includes Bruno Kirby as a brash mob footman and the reliably terrific Michael Madsen as a brutal thug.

We've rarely seen movies with such an unpretentious vision of mobster life, in its violence, its stupidity, its utter grubbiness. It's a world of men who cluster around seedy ''social clubs'' divvying up cheap stolen goods, desperately striving to feed the demands of their bosses.

Lefty cannot see any other world; Donnie almost loses his life to the same tunnel vision. His 11th-hour bid to save himself and Lefty is as sad and doomed as the old criminal.

The movie sometimes moves a little too slowly, and once in a while loses its grasp on the subtle tones of sadness and absurdity that make it so different from typical gangster fare.

But the weaknesses are minor. In almost every respect, Donnie Brasco is an original, the unexpected rebirth of an old and oft-told tale.

Donnie Brasco
(R; violence, profanity, adult situations) Johnny Depp. 127 minutes. At National Amusements, Danbarry Middletown.