Paul Attanasio, who created Homicide: Life on the Street, based his screenplay about the experiences of former FBI agent Joseph Pistone with New York mafiosi in the late 70s on the book Pistone wrote with Richard Woodley. The mobsters in this 1997 movie do things as grisly as the ones in Martin Scorsese movies, but without the histrionics—their behavior is unsettling because it's subtly seductive, as the story argues it was to Pistone, who felt increasingly betrayed by the FBI. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) does fine with the relationship between leads Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. As Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, Depp ingratiates himself with Pacino—a low-echelon guy with ties to the top men the FBI is really after—and the chemistry between the two is complex because their bond has many layers. Depp conveys his character's ambivalence and ambiguity with utter conviction, and though the annoying score tries to throw Pacino's monologues over the top, his persuasive, low-key performance puts the violins in their place. Newell doesn't do as well with the overwritten scenes between Depp and Anne Heche as his wife, who's exasperated that he's neglecting his family. But the intricate emotions of the rest of the movie resonate even through these clunky scenes and pull the movie back from the brink of melodrama—to which it comes dangerously, and excitingly, close.
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