Donnie Brasco is noteworthy on three counts. It marks a stunning change of pace for British director Mike Newell, whose previous movies (Into The West, Enchanted April and Four Weddings And A Funeral) have tended towards the light and viscera-free; an ""I've arrived!"" star-making performance from Johnny Depp, who finally seems to have given up playing too-good-to-be-true eccentrics; and another authoritative East Coast mobster portrait from Pacino.
But though Al's presence and the whole New York underworld milieu make the movie sound over-familiar, Donnie Brasco is very much its own beast - - a companion piece to the likes of GoodFellas, but no copy. Yes, many of the themes are familiar - - friendship, loyalty, honour among thieves, tomato-heavy home cooking - - but the ambience is entirely different. Al Pacino doesn't play a powerful, tough-talking gangland leader here. Instead he's one Lefty Ruggiero - - a weary, cynical, small-time hitman, low on the Mafia food chain and unlikely to rise much higher. Lefty's day, if he ever had one, was the day before yesterday. Meanwhile, the man he takes under his wing as friend and understudy - - young jewelry expert Donnie Brasco - - turns out to be undercover FBI man Joe Pistone.
Based firmly on a true story, the film centres on the growing trust between these two men - - a friendship which, along with a growing anger at the general uselessness of his FBI bosses and the temptations of Mob life, makes it very difficult for Pistone to go against his new chums, Lefty in particular.
But fans of scattergun ball-breaking and back-alley whackings needn't despair - - Donnie Brasco abounds with Mob Movie action. True, it starts slowly as the two leads get to know each other and true, there's none of the stylised gunplay of Scarface. But once it gets going, Donnie kicks ass with size 15 Italian shoes.
After all, in beefy psycho Michael Madsen we have the scariest loose cannon this side of Joe Pesci: when he tries to shoot someone for a minor misdemeanor, only for the rest of the crew to lead him away in a '"He's not worth it'" fashion, you just know he's going to burst free and pop the guy anyway. Add to this the most grisly sawing-people-into-chunks moment since Shallow Grave (and various kickings, shootings and stabbings) and Newell's Four Weddings is a distant memory.
Newell doesn't hold back in detailing the devilish attractions of gangster life, either. When Donnie suggests that the boys go down to Florida to run a bar/nightclub (all secretly part of some elaborate sting), the enormous boats, sun-soaked poolsides and naked ladies paint a worryingly alluring picture.
But while good things were expected of Pacino, Madsen and (perhaps to a lesser extent, considering the unlikely material) Newell, the surprise of Donnie Brasco is Depp, who turns in a brilliant performance. His serial underachieving has been getting tiresome (he's churned out too many I'm-too-pure-for-this-world innocents of late) but in Brasco he shines. In his domestic scenes with Mrs Pistone (Heche), he seems too young to have three kids and a wife that angry, but in the Mob sequences he comes alive. Depp's habitual, emotion-free deadpan works well for this character. Brasco is a man living behind a mask, after all - - but Depp is skillful enough to show the emotion behind the calm. At the airport, an old FBI pal who recognises him is twatted and twatted. (Depp explains to his stunned colleagues: ""That pervert grabbed my dick".") All good stuff, as gripping as the best of Scorsese. Donnie Brasco is a remarkable achievement, engrossing and violent, but with a big heart. And, although it's arguably Pacino's film, Depp is the revelation.