Audiences today have been conditioned to seek out the familiar more Die Hard rip-offs! more natural-disaster epics! more Star Wars! but in the case of Donnie Brasco, a wonderfully dense, clever, and moving gangland thriller that might be subtitled ''How I Went Undercover and Beat the Mob,'' there's a risk that familiarity without the pop bang could breed indifference. Written by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) and directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), the film is based on the true story of Joe Pistone, an FBI undercover agent who, in the mid-'70s, infiltrated the Mafia, getting closer to its inner circle than had any previous U.S. law officer. Adopting the persona of ''Donnie Brasco,'' ace jewel broker, he became part of the Bonanno clan, proving his loyalty by participating in crimes both trivial and grotesque. Johnny Depp, with his poker-faced suaveness, plays Joe/Donnie, and Al Pacino is Lefty Ruggiero, the wearily cynical, edging-over-the-hill hitman who takes the Young Turk under his tattered wing, never suspecting that his sleek new protege is playing him for a fool.
In the 25 years since The Godfather, there have, of course, been one or two other movies about New York Italian crime-family hoods. There have also been countless dramas about undercover cops, the existential Method actors of law enforcement. But there's a fresh fascination and poetry to Donnie Brasco's exquisitely detailed, you-are-there portrait of how the Mob actually works. When Lefty explains to Donnie that he may decide to make Donnie his ''friend'' (i.e., a real friend but also a friend of the Mafia), the banter only seems avuncular and casual. Everything Lefty says is a test he's jaded but no dummy and when he brings Donnie around to the barroom clubhouse to meet such fellow soldiers as Nicky (Bruno Kirby), a hedonistic wiseacre happy just to be living the life, or the ambitious, hotheaded Sonny Black (Michael Madsen), who's sick of cracking open parking meters while the bosses gather all the respect (and cash), the goombah-frat-house atmosphere can't camouflage the fact that Donnie has entered a nightmare version of office politics. If he doesn't make the right friends (and some of them have eyes a lot sharper than Lefty's), he's not going to survive.
Attanasio is one of the last screenwriters who relishes the art of the spiel e.g., Donnie's explication of the half dozen meanings of ''fuggedabowdit.'' The plot, which takes the characters down to Miami to buy a nightclub, is a rich, satisfying gumbo of back stabbing, shady business maneuvers, and mayhem. As in many a Mob drama, loyalty is the issue. Only here it has added irony, since Donnie, the newcomer who's so good at winning everyone's trust, is at once the most honest man on screen and the ultimate betrayer. As the film goes on, his cause becomes less and less clear to him: Is his loyalty only to the law, or does he have some left over for Lefty, the broken-down killer who, despite his past, has begun to tug at Donnie's sympathies?
It's about time that Johnny Depp, with his eerie placidity, got away from playing saintly sweet eccentrics. In Donnie Brasco, he gives his first lived-in performance as a recognizable adult. Depp's tendency toward deadpan minimalism serves him well here as Donnie, he's a walking mask but his performance also has moments of crazed volatility that connect him to the audience. Some of the most dramatic moments come when his cover is threatened. In a Japanese restaurant, Donnie practically has to improvise an early De Niro monologue to explain why he won't remove his boots (it's where his tape recorder is hidden). And it's wrenching to see him dip back into his real life, visiting the wife (Anne Heche) and daughters he's had to ignore. They can't know even a whisper of what he's up to, and so they resent his absence all the more. Depp's implosive frustration during these scenes is powerful; it shows us what Joe/Donnie has to put a lid on. If Donnie Brasco belongs to any actor, though, it's Al Pacino. His Lefty might be the underworld equivalent of a plant foreman waiting for his gold retirement watch. Except that the Mob doesn't give you a watch. Its gift is far less kind, and by the end, Lefty's weary acceptance of it lends this canny, engrossing movie an unexpected heart.