Married To The Mob

YOU'RE TELLING YOURSELF: I need another wiseguy movie like I need to pay more taxes. Al Pacino as a two-bit mafioso? Is the pope Catholic? Johnny Depp as some goombah named Donnie Brasco? Fuggedaboudit ...

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about ""Donnie Brasco,'' but give this movie 20 minutes and you'll change your tune. The story, based on true events, is so good, and the characters so rich, that the familiarity of the turf becomes irrelevant. Screenwriter Paul Attanasio (""Quiz Show'') and jack-of-all-genres director Mike Newell (""Four Weddings and a Funeral,'' ""Dance With a Stranger'') don't seem worried that hundreds before them have marched down these mean Italian-American streets; after all, we haven't been there with Lefty Ruggiero--the small-time hit man Pacino plays--or with Depp's Donnie Brasco. Donnie is actually FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone, a man who is so successful insinuating himself inside the mob that he doesn't know how to get back out again--or wheth-er he wants to.

Pistone is a great actor and an agile seducer: playing his role as ""Donnie the jewel man,'' he makes Lefty feel like he's found a son and a bright new future. The love and trust Lefty feels for his protege isn't playacting, and Pistone is pulled in by it. He's a man torn by too many families and too many loyalties--to the Feds, to the mobsters, and to his wife (Anne Heche) and children, who never know where he is or what he's really doing. As with most whose lives are a performance, his sense of his own identity is a slippery thing.

What's compelling about the way Newell and Attanasio tell this story--with a riveting mixture of comedy, dread, warmth and brutality--is that the audience isn't sure which side to take. Depp's character is in a classic tragic bind, and family values have rarely been so ambiguous. There's a brilliantly tense scene at a Japanese restaurant, where the maitre d' orders Donnie and his Mafia colleagues to take off their shoes. We know if Donnie does he'll be killed, because that's where his tape recorder is hidden. Donnie improvises adroitly, playing on his comrades' xenophobia to turn them against the Japanese host. We're relieved--and then we're horrified when the mafiosi, pumped up with ""family'' loyalty, viciously stomp the maitre d'. For Donnie, the price of saving his own skin keeps getting higher.

This is Depp's coming-of-age role, and he's terrific. Pacino, who's shown more flash than substance recently, reminds us how great he can be when he loses himself inside a character. The bond between these two makes Newell's film sing. It's a wiseguy movie, but it's also a doomed love story--funny, sad and bit- ter on the tongue.