March 03, 1997 12:00 PM

Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Anne Heche

When Pacino is good, he’s very, very good, and when he’s bad (remember all that senseless screaming in Heat), he’s hammier than anything Hormel ever squeezed into a can. Fortunately, Pacino is achingly good in Donnie Brasco, a gritty, sometimes violent film based on the true-life exploits of FBI agent Joe Pistone (Depp), who, calling himself Donnie Brasco, successfully infiltrated the Mafia in the 1970s.

Pacino plays a small-time mobster who befriends Depp, instructing him in such niceties of wiseguy behavior as never mentioning the name of someone you’ve just killed. Depp learns these lessons well. Too well. Soon he is immersed so deeply into the mob life that his marriage is in trouble (he misses Christmas dinner) and he’s feeling seriously conflicted about having to betray Pacino.

The talented Depp continues to mature as an actor, and he’s well matched here by Heche as his unhappy wife. But Brasco, dexterously directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), belongs to Pacino, who, in the closing scenes, achieves an almost epic grandeur as a wiseguy who is sadly anything but. (R)

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