Reviewed by GREG KING.
This fabulous remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs heralds a return to form for Martin Scorsese after the vaguely disappointing Gangs Of New York and the overlong and overblown Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. It is, arguably, Scorsese’s best film since GoodFellas. Writer William Monahan (whose previous film was Ridley Scott’s epic Kingdom Of Heaven) brilliantly condenses the Infernal Affairs trilogy into 150 minutes; he retains the bones of the narrative, but makes sense of the often complex plotting.
The Departed also marks a move away from Scorsese’s familiar milieu of Italian-American gangsters. The film is set against the background of the mean streets of the Irish-American community in Boston, but it is an environment that proves just as dangerous, violent, immoral and treacherous as the New York of his earlier films. For over twenty years, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) has been the godfather of these streets, which he has ruled with ruthless efficiency. “I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” he tells us in the opening establishing scenes, “I want my environment to be a product of me.”
Costello has even had the foresight to groom young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), one of his proteges, and send him off to police academy. Working within the police department, Sullivan is able to monitor the cops’ efforts to bring Frank and his organisation down. But a special unit within the Internal Affairs division suspects that Costello has an informant inside the department and hatches a plan to uncover his identity.
William Costigan (Leonardo Di Caprio) hails from the same neighbourhood as Costello, and his family moved in the same shady circles. In an effort to break away from his family’s past, Costigan has joined the police force. He even graduated from the police academy at the same time as Sullivan. But the authorities throw him back onto the streets as an undercover agent, hoping that his background will be enable him to easily infiltrate Costello’s organisation and uncover the informant’s identity. The film subtly explores the parallels between these two men as they engage in an intriguing cat-and-mouse game. They walk a dangerous tightrope in which they risk exposure and even death, as well as having to wrestle with the terrible emotional consequences of their duplicity and the loss of their own identities.
As with his superior remake of the ‘60’s thriller Cape Fear, Scorsese makes this film his own with some typically muscular direction. The film contains many signature touches, like the graphic violence, the profanity-laden dialogue, the complex morality play that consumes the central protagonists, and the judicious use of music (including The Rolling Stones and Roger Waters’ Comfortably Numb) to perfectly underscore the mood of many key scenes. And long time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker’s rapid editing style quickly takes us into the heart of a scene, and brings energy to this almost breathlessly paced film.
The performances of the key cast are all uniformly excellent. For too long Nicholson has been a lazy performer and many of his recent roles have been thinly disguised caricatures of his own larger-than-life screen persona. But here he actually delivers a performance that is, by turn, erratic, manic, malevolent and laced with obviously improvised touches that hint at hidden depths of the character. As a teen, Di Caprio offered us some brilliant performances in films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy’s Life (in which he virtually blew De Niro off the screen), but many of his later performances have been rather routine. This is his third film for Scorsese and he has matured and grown in stature under his tutelage, and his work here ranks as amongst his best.
Damon gives easily the best performance of his career here. Vera Farmiga also does well as the police psychiatrist who becomes involved in the lives of the two undercover men, but her role here is not merely as a token female presence to alleviate the palpable testosterone of this very violent masculine world. And the good cop/bad cop dynamics of Martin Sheen and a hilariously foul-mouthed Mark Wahlberg add yet another dimension to the film.
Could The Departed be the film that finally gives Scorsese the richly deserved Oscar that has so far eluded him during the past three decades? Let’s hope so! The Departed is vital, unmissable cinema, a standout amongst so much dross currently clogging up our multiplexes.