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The Departed   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: William Monahan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Departed may be Martin Scorsese's most overtly commercial film: engineered towards crowd-pleasing melodrama rather than the far-ranging auteurial musings he normally engages in. And yet it proves the adage that talent rises to its own level, for no simple studio hack could make such material so compelling. The script screams for pulp button-pushing -- a post-Sopranos knock-off that someone came up with on a whim and tossed into development without a second thought. It's actually a remake of a very good Asian film called Infernal Affairs: the sort that Hollywood routinely mangles in an effort to render it palatable to us dumb ole Americans. But in the hands of a maestro, even the corniest folk tune can sound like a symphony... and the orchestra gathered here is extraordinary.

For starters, I count at least seven headliners in the upper echelons of the cast, and that doesn't include Vera Farmiga holding her own quite well as the token female lead. The rest of the jaw-droppingly talented principles engage in a manic competition to steal the show, with Mark Wahlberg's button-pushing Sgt. Dignam edging out Alec Baldwin's no-nonsense Capt. Ellerby for the prize. Wahlberg creeps up quietly under leads Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, going almost unnoticed before trouncing everyone with the best performance of his career. And he's not alone. Scorsese always has a way of getting the best out of his actors, and with actors of this caliber, it tends to take the breath away. Indeed, watching some of the best thespians of our era beat the crap out of each other (both literally and figuratively) is one of The Departed's greatest joys.

In more general terms, it endeavors to present a calculated exercise in paranoia, using the clever gimmick of Infernal Affairs to overcome Scorsese's typical disinterest in plot. Two young men join two different sides of Boston's cop/criminal divide. Colin Sullivan (Damon) has been groomed by crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) to serve as his mole in the police department. After graduating from the academy, he quickly rises through the ranks, joining the State Police task force on organized crime and feeding Costello information that lets him stay one step ahead of the law. Meanwhile, hooligan-made-good Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) receives an eerily similar assignment from the cops: infiltrate Costello's organization, get close to the man in charge, and deliver the goods on his various dirty deeds. Both sides suspect a mole in their ranks, but neither side knows who it is.

William Monahan's screenplay (based on an original by Alan Mak and Felix Chong) is content to wind the scenario up and release it in a logical direction. Scorsese, however, uses it to play on the psyches of his protagonists, transforming the rambling storyline into an exquisite crucible of loyalty and betrayal. Both moles struggle to keep their priorities straight amid an increasing morass of compromised decisions. Ostensible bad guy Sullivan does good by collaring a number of prominent gangsters (Costello's rivals) while supposed good guy Costigan amasses considerable evidence against Costello by participating in all manner of gangland horrors. Both harbor doubts, both fight to stay true to their masters, and both are aware of the horrendous consequences should they be uncovered.

Beneath them, various supporting figures dance and wheel in a complicated game of blind man's bluff. Scorsese's mastery of crime stories shapes their dilemma into an immensely compelling package, with New York filling in for the gritty streets of South Boston. We see the expected forays into gangster mayhem, along with the now-standard meditation on how (or whether) the police are any better than the thugs they pursue. None of it breaks new ground, but with this director at the helm, it remains compulsively fascinating throughout. Scorsese's humor, always present even in his most solemn work, finds a particularly cheeky outlet here -- providing dark laughs that enhance rather than undercut the dramatics. A preoccupation with the Irish underclass gives The Departed a certain distinction as well, though at times it's laid on a bit thick (the pederast priest notion is pushed farther, perhaps, than it should), and the three principles often parallel a similar trio of hoods in Goodfellas: Damon, like Robert De Niro, hides callous indifference beneath a winning smile; DiCaprio, like Ray Liotta, is all paranoid stares and repressed rage; and Nicholson, like Joe Pesci, uses clownish tics to disguise the mind of a pure psychopath. Unique it isn't, but who can resist the energy and skill of such performers carrying out their duties?

On a technical level The Departed occupies similar ground. Scorsese doesn't stretch any boundaries or test any new muscles, relying on quick edits and an unsurprising mélange of rock songs to hold things together. (We all love "Gimme Shelter" too, Marty, but could you maybe find something else to play once in awhile?) When it comes to establishing mood, however, few films this year can match the white-knuckle game of cops-and-robbers that transpires here. Policemen and gangster alike are soon winnowed down to a few key players, sitting in increasingly smaller rooms and trying to do their work while ferreting out who among them is spilling the beans to the other side. We can feel the piano wire ratcheting tight around their souls, as suspicious glares and desperate bravado turn to increasingly violent acts of brinksmanship. And beneath it all, the film's central thesis comes to a simmering boil: if one does as one's enemy does, then how is one any better than one's enemy? Most filmmakers could never tickle such a notion from a gangster/noir boilerplate like this; they'd just focus on the gunfights and be done with it. The Departed might have easily fallen into the trap of being a Scorsese rip-off instead of a Scorsese film. But there's certain benefits to going straight to the source... not the least of which is showing how much better pedestrian material can be with a genuine living legend at the helm.

Review published 10.06.2006.

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