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Cheerleaders for Mike Newell’s glossy, schematic, diverting gangster movie have been unusually defensive about its merits. There is Donnie Brasco’s soul-draining grind of mob work, with its parking-meter scores and wine spritzers in crummy bars, and then there’s the extravagant, Oscar-collecting hyperbole of the Godfathers I and II, which ignored the pettiness and grease of a life spent on Mulberry Street. One is the truth, they say, the other a romance.

It’s easy to excoriate something for not doing what it doesn’t aim to do, and as the upcoming re-release of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece will show, his mobster movies aren’t about the daily frets of real wiseguy life; they’re about the history of glory and foreignness and grief in America. Taken on its own merits, Donnie Brasco does a fine job documenting the daily frustrations and indignities witnessed by real-life G-man Joe Pistone, on whose experiences working undercover amid the mob’s bottom-feeders in the ’70s this story is based.

Pistone poses as “Donnie the Jewel Man,” a stony-faced kid with an eye for real gems. As the self-contained Donnie, Johnny Depp is watchful and still, confident that the interested mob flies will find their own way into his almost invisible web. This is Depp’s first grown-up role—he’s given a wife (Anne Heche), for heaven’s sake—but his acting skills are in a state of arrested development. Rightly lauded for making brave, idiosyncratic choices, Depp is actually a dull actor with great taste. Perhaps still interested in shrugging off his Bop magazine hunk image, he chooses roles with no call for traditional forms of acquiescence and display—smiling, for example, or moving his face at all. He should be applauded for not wanting to suck up to the public with doggy-eyed movie-star tricks, but so far he’s refused to play a human being as resolutely as Dolph Lundgren has. Also, it might be telling that Johnny Depp parts have been remarkably unchatty; one wonders how he’d treat a part with a lot of dialogue.

Donnie the spider attracts a torn-down fly they call “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), who tests the kid’s supposed gem sense and then watches, nonplused, as Donnie roughs up the seller of a fake diamond without even being asked. Lefty’s own son is a wastrel and a junkie, not interested in his father’s specialized skills. Other, younger wiseguys are strong, cruel, and brash; they don’t need coaching from a shabby old loser like Lefty. The attraction between Donnie and Lefty is tragic and immediate—Donnie exploits Lefty’s desire for a protégé; Lefty’s crushing need to have someone to love stymies Donnie’s plan. (Donnie Brasco is a wised-up, equally sentimental version of Sling Blade in many ways, from the pace of its central friendship to the confession of love.)

Although the plot faces down a number of contradictory matters of personal and professional loyalty, it doesn’t traffic in subtlety; Paul Attanasio’s script slams the door shut on every difficult question with some shouted remark that sounds deep but means nothing (like Willie Wonka’s square candies that looked ’round). With the script for Quiz Show Attanasio proved he has no idea how educated WASPs communicate; he does better here with the jargony street talk he seems so attracted to.

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He has a real feel for the rhythm of a private language, its bluntness as well as its sting, but he is incapable of making it do anything useful, like make a point or provide a revelation or change an emotional tone. So halfway through, when Maggie Pistone is watching, appalled, while her husband rifles the house for a bag containing $300,000 in cash and won’t tell her where it’s from and why he wants it, she yells, “You’re becoming like them.” Expediently, Joe shoots back, “I’m not becoming like them; I am them!” (The candies were cube-shaped, see, but their little eyes roved all over.)

One of the ways Donnie is like them is his brutality. He doesn’t too much mind his first bit of dirty work—battering the owner of a strip bar to impress Lefty—but later the gang goes to a fancy Japanese restaurant for dinner. Since removing his cowboy boots means exposing his tape recorder, Joe thinks fast. “Who won the fuckin’ war?” he asks his new friends as they dutifully pull off their Florsheims. Tapping their racism and whipping it into a veritable meringue of hatred, Donnie finds he may have gone too far; the wiseguys pummel their Japanese host into a bloody jelly, then look to Donnie, who started all this, to join in.

Attanasio may have a superficial cleverness, but no one said his is the most original mind of the 20th century—when Joe returns home, he pulls off his boot and rewinds the tape to the point where he starts kicking the guy, the gangsters grunting racial epithets with every blow. This is unnecessary; if the audience (and the character) doesn’t feel shocked at his behavior when he’s actually beating a man half to death to protect his own skin, they won’t care any more if he relives it later. It’s not a situation that becomes clear on hindsight.

Such simpleminded movie moments constantly make a fool’s hash of Donnie Brasco’s otherwise smart mission—to undermine every aspect of thug life that American movies have spent the last 80 years glamorizing. These guys are small-time, penny-ante, weasely crooks with an inflated sense of their own grandeur. Their place on the bottom rung of outsider income is partially thanks to the economy, the growth of legitimate or nearly so industries that specialize in the same work, and their own petty, local mind-set. These fellows are not ruling Chicago by controlling the sale and distribution of liquor; they’re busting open parking meters for dimes.

Even resentful Lefty, who has been passed over for every mob promotion, and finally is passed over in favor of Donnie himself, isn’t inherently a loser. He seems cut out for his chosen life. He’s an unhesitating bully, but ruthlessness doesn’t help him—they’re all ruthless. Organized crime is a growing industry in a world that can hardly support it; the stakes are higher and there’s less in the way of spoils to go around. Lefty gripes that all over the country wiseguys are “chasing after the same nickel,” and the money does seem to circulate in a very tight pattern. Donnie and Lefty give each other Christmas bonuses of equal amounts of cash, then Lefty borrows his gift back to see himself through the season.

The circularity of mob life sets up a resonating vibration in the story’s shadow plot, in which the FBI—the other of Joe/Donnie’s twin existences—is a similarly hierarchical organization, whose grandiose goals, which are indivisible from its image, are never attained; it just breaks off enough bits of crime to feed itself. But this angle is not exploited. The men Joe reports to treat him as if he’s Dr. Brundel turning into The Fly—sharing wary glances while he sneers and jeers in his kicky new argot.

Choices that err on the side of silliness or obviousness sap the tension and complexity of every good idea this movie has. When the wiseguys migrate to Florida to scout new deals, Newell indulges himself in a comic montage of the Manhattanites carousing on the beach in inappropriate clothing, brawling on a tennis court (in inappropriate clothing), and cavorting at a water park. Throughout most of the film, we are Donnie’s tape recorder—we can’t know something he doesn’t. But a huge multiple hit takes place before our eyes while Donnie waits in the car. The scene would have been much more effective if we had waited with him, then followed him to the basement of a brownstone where, without preliminary, he is asked to help saw apart the bodies of his former boss and the organization’s top soldiers.

Donnie Brasco is entertaining but hardly revelatory, except for Pacino’s performance, which is brilliant and horribly moving. He needed redemption like no actor on earth after his hateful braying in the evil waste of film Scent of a Woman and his mannered, overloud work in Heat. His portrayal of Lefty, the put-upon con with just enough smarts to sense how ridiculous he looks to the younger guys and just enough dignity not to care, wipes all similar roles, from Serpico to Michael Corleone, from your mind. He’s almost pathetic slumped in front of the TV in a red warmup suit watching one of his beloved violent nature shows, and tragic huddled alone during a yacht party, spitting venom at Donnie when he thinks his protégé has betrayed him. The former owner of a boat that he had to sell when things got tight, Lefty can’t help wanting to display his expertise to cocky Donnie. “You go to the bow!” he bellows, stricken. “I’m gonna stay in the stern.”CP