Joe Pistone is an undercover FBI agent ordered to infiltrate the mob as Donnie Brasco. He befriends a small-time hoodlum called Lefty, who he forms a genuine friendship with - although he knows that his actions will cost Lefty his life
As if setting out to disprove the commonly-held theory that only Martin Scorsese can make based-on-fact tales of corruption and betrayal with a Mafia background, here's a movie that seems to be almost a Greatest Hits package of material from the Scorsese catalogue - Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino - done in a far less operatic, slightly more credible fashion. It may lack Scorsese's obvious relish for the milieu, but that at least leaves it less open to charges of glamorising horrible people doing terrible things in a ghastly business.
In the late 1970s, small-time New York wiseguy known as Lefty (Pacino) befriends young-blood Donnie Brasco (Depp), and brings him into the mob, schooling him in how to dress and talk and in the minutiae of the family's intricate power structure. But Donnie is actually Joseph Pistone, a deep-cover FBI agent on a long-term assignment to infiltrate the cosa nostra. The job is already a strain on Pistone's marriage and family life, and gets even more complicated when he begins to feel a genuine friendship for the deadbeat Lefty (Pacino), though he knows that as soon as the operation is over his friend will be murdered for being taken in by him.
Screenwriter Paul Attanasio, a veteran of Quiz Show and TV's Homicide: Life On The Street, crafts a showcase for actors: no matter how one might want to fast-forward through the repetitive scenes of Pistone having trouble with his wife (an ill-used Anne Heche), the material soars whenever the men are left alone. Pacino, as hunched and battered here as he was smooth and powerful as The Godfather, is remarkable, and Depp manfully keeps up with him. You also get wiseguy action from such reliable types as Michael Madsen, James Russo and Bruno Kirby.
Mike Newell sometimes directs it too much as if it were a soap opera, rarely using Donnie-Joe's situation for suspense and not quite matching the intensity of the similarly-plotted Deep Cover. However, Pacino's outstanding work elevates this to the crime movie pantheon. It even has at least one new line destined to enter the Gangster Catchphrase Hall Of Fame: "Remember, when they send for you, it's your best friend that does it."
Depp and Pacino elevate this with two great performances, but they're helped by a solid script and a great supporting cast.