Like artists in other fields, filmmakers don't like being locked away in narrow pigeonholes. This may be why director Mike Newell has taken such an unexpected turn in his latest movie.
Audiences have cheered him as a gentle storyteller, with pictures like "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Enchanted April" among his crowd-pleasers.
But with the new "Donnie Brasco," he invades the territory of darker talents like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, spinning the tale of an undercover FBI agent (Johnny Depp) and a fading criminal (Al Pacino) whose trust and friendship the cop has sworn to betray. It's a fact-based story, taken from real events, and a violent one, to the point of real horror at times.
Donnie Brasco is the assumed name of special agent Joe Pistone, a young Fed who manages to infiltrate the mob that dominates New York's hyperactive crime scene. His assignment begins when he worms his way into the confidence of Lefty Ruggiero, an aging assassin who's connected in one way or another with every gangster in town.
Lefty is interesting to the Feds not for any clout of his own; despite his age and experience, he's still a small-time operator with little to show for his years of criminality. What makes him valuable is that he knows - quite literally - where all the local skeletons are buried. He accepts so-called Donnie as a protg, vouching for his loyalty and introducing him to the Brooklyn contingent of a powerful Mafia family.
The plot's most dramatic twists arise from two developments neither of them could have predicted. For one, Donnie soon bypasses Lefty in the mob's complex hierarchy, rising to a higher level despite his desperate efforts to stay near his mentor in the mediocre middle.
For another, their branch of the mob explodes into war within itself, bringing nerve-jangling instability to every aspect of the power structure. Your best friend today might be the one who "whacks" you tomorrow.
Finally, as if all this weren't enough to contend with, Joe's wife and young daughters lose patience with the unexplained absences and complicated excuses that his profession inflicts on them. Even the pathetic Lefty has a more satisfying home life in some respects, and domestic pressures begin to trouble Joe as acutely as the life-threatening risks of his undercover career.
The main ingredient making "Donnie Brasco" a reasonably smart and involving gangster yarn is the pair of performances at its heart. The poignancy of Pacino's acting comes partly from the nature of his role, and partly from the way this contrasts to his most famous earlier work. He became a top-flight star by taking iron-willed control of a Mafia family in "The Godfather Part II" more than 20 years ago, so there's a special irony in his sad-eyed portrayal of a crook who never made the grade and is now losing the tiny bit of status he did manage to accumulate.
Depp is less resonant but equally convincing as the increasingly troubled Joe, reconfirming his reputation as a hugely versatile actor who can swing from the comedy of an "Ed Wood" to the tragedy of a "Dead Man" and the fantasy of an "Edward Scissorhands" without losing an ounce of credibility.
The strong supporting cast includes Michael Madsen as a mid-level mob boss, Anne Heche as Joe's frustrated spouse, and Bruno Kirby as a clone of the wormy little crooks played so effortlessly by Joe Pesci in one Scorsese picture after another.
The echo of Pesci in Kirby's performance raises the question of whether "Donnie Brasco" would have been a better picture if a mob-movie specialist like Scorsese - or Coppola, whose "Godfather" films still dominate the genre - had taken the reins of Paul Attanasio's screenplay.
The answer is almost certainly yes. Newell's talent for eliciting good performances is at its best in projects where charm and elegance are major selling points, which explains why audiences have embraced the delights of "Enchanted April" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" more enthusiastically than the more brooding qualities of "The Good Father" and "Dance With a Stranger," which he also directed.
The gritty realities of "Donnie Brasco" aren't geared to his strong points, leading to awkward scenes (e.g., a maudlin moment with Joe's oldest child) and mishandled details (e.g., the way Lefty's social clumsiness comes and goes). Scorsese's sense of style (see "GoodFellas" for a classic example) or Coppola's sense of nuance (see the first two "Godfather" epics) would surely have served the story better. As it stands, "Donnie Brasco" is a competent picture with a true-life story that might have been more powerful still.
* 'Donnie Brasco' has an R rating; it contains one scene of horrific death and dismemberment as well as other scenes of violence and a great deal of very foul language.