Wise guise

Donnie Brasco : Mike Newell (18)
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The Independent Culture
Crime doesn't pay, but films usually leave it till the last reel to make that point. Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco may be the first gangster movie to show us a powerful Mafioso who is short of a few bob. One Christmas time, Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino) gives his protege Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) an envelope full of money, and thanks Donnie for his equally satisfactory present - an envelope full of money - but by the end of the conversation Lefty has "borrowed" back half of what he gave. He may be known in all five boroughs of New York - it's his proudest boast, made with a little syncopation ("In all five boroughs, I'm known") - but he's not exactly rolling in money.

He does carry his money in a roll, though, not in a wallet, and that's important. That's the wise-guy style, at least in the late 1970s. When Lefty takes Donnie on as an apprentice gangster, he gives him lessons in etiquette, fascinating to the viewer on an anthropological level. Get rid of that moustache, dress like I dress, never buy a drink. Never say the name of a traitor - not only is he dead, he never existed. Always beware of the difference in status between "a friend of mine", which means only that someone is well-connected, and "a friend of ours", which means he's a main man.

Lefty himself isn't high up in the power structure. There are two levels above him, and he's too old and reliable a lieutenant to be promoted all the way, up to the position where loyalty is expressed with kisses on the mouth, and someone drapes a coat around your shoulders as you step out of a car as if you'd won a boxing-match just by standing up. Lefty isn't blind to his situation. As he puts it: "What have I got? Even a dog gets a warm piece of the sidewalk."

A decent man in a vicious job, his eyes haunted, the role of Lefty is tailor-made for Al Pacino. Lefty is characterised by verbal formulas - "That's not the question", "Forget about it" - and quirks like smoking in the car but thinking he'll catch cold and die if the window is open a crack to let the smoke out. He makes endearing slips of the tongue - adding "A punch of salt" to a recipe, saying "Don't think you can pull the wood over my eyes" - but when he gets the words right, he keeps his promises. The only jarring note is that his second wife has been directed to look terrified in her first scene, as if he was brutal to her, a hint that isn't picked up anywhere else in the film. He's not even violent to his junkie son, though his disappointment explains why he should be vulnerable to the approaches of Donnie Brasco, who just happens to be an FBI agent.

Johnny Depp does nothing wrong in the main part, but it's a standard role that any actor in approximately the right age group could manage, with none of the sweetness and vulnerability that make Depp such an interesting performer. He's only approximately in the right age-group, at that, since he hardly looks like someone with a 12-year-old daughter. The gangsters don't know about his family, of course. Still, the age question surfaces again in a crucial scene, where the gang visits a Japanese restaurant. It's like that vintage Odor-Eaters advert, except that Donnie doesn't have smelly feet, but a tape recorder hidden in his boot, and he can't sing out "Let's eat Italian" like the man in the ad because the guys eat Italian every other night. That's why they're here, for a bit of variety.

What he does, to explain his refusal to show his socks, is to make up a story about his dad being killed by the Japanese. He is not going to take his boots off for no Jap. It's a powerful scene because the best thing that can happen is that the guys beat the maitre d' to a pulp, and he's going to have to join in, since he's the one who's supposed to have a reason for hatred. But for the audience there's likely to be an extra layer of calculation that the characters don't share: OK, Donnie, if your dad was killed on the last day of the war, right before VJ Day, that would make you, what, around 35 now? Hmm. Will they go for that.

The restaurant scene spells out the principle of the plot, that a bad family is better than no family at all. The wise guys, who will kill you if you break their code, are actually more reliable than the FBI, who seem to puncture their own arrangements on a regular basis. They expect Donnie to vouch for a Fed in Florida who he has never even met and turns out to be something of a loose cannon. They see him at an airport, in character and deep cover, and come over for a little chat. They're too mean to hire a boat when he needs one, to impress a Mafioso, then they lend him one that's being used in another entrapment effort, so that its picture is all over Newsweek a little later.

Donnie's alienation from his employers is made plausible enough, but there's also a nagging feeling of whitewash, as so often with "true stories" that reach the big screen. We don't see Donnie breaking the law in any major way, though a wise guy worth the name would regard that as a necessary test for a recruit. The Japanese restaurant scene is presented as the first time Donnie's actions are hard for his conscience to live with, though the film leads up to a more drastic test, an assassination. It almost seems rather late for Donnie to be involved in such an assignment - Lefty, after all, has 26 "clips" to his name.

On the rare occasions that Donnie gets home, he's looking for comfort and order, not characteristics that are likely to be found in a household containing three growing girls and a single mother who copes by pretending she's really a widow. Even when Donnie does find a role to play, by helping his eldest prepare for First Communion, his questioning ("Who made you? Why did He make you? Where is God?") has a whiff of the third degree about it.

At heart, Donnie Brasco is Pacino's film, with a lot of imagery establishing him as the king of the beasts. He's even given a lion at one point, as a pet - we see it locked in a car and being fed hamburgers, though we don't actually see how it gets into or out of the vehicle. Lefty, too, is a lion being fed junk-food, a tired big cat among hyaenas (animals we are helpfully shown on the nature documentaries he likes to watch so much).

There isn't the sort of reshaping of genre that happens once in a blue moon when a British director tackles an American project, such as when Alexander Mackendrick made Sweet Smell of Success or Stephen Frears made The Grifters. If the film doesn't add a great deal to the gangster canon, perhaps it's because Mike Newell, though admirably pushing his range beyond the cosiness of Four Weddings and a Funeral, delivers something closer to sombre tension than big thrills On release from tomorrow