Two dozen films under his belt, and Martin Scorsese can still crank out a gem worthy of comparison with “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull.” “The Departed” doesn’t have quite the same air of brilliance about it as those classics did, but it sure comes close.
It’s a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong action flick called “Infernal Affairs,” which was an hour shorter and several fathoms shallower. It was a devilishly clever story about a police department and an organized-crime ring battling each other, both unaware that they had rats in their midst — i.e., an undercover cop had infiltrated the gangsters, and a gangster had managed to become a cop. It’s a great little movie with a great premise.
Scorsese, with screenwriter William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”), has taken that caper’s basic framework and injected some humanity into it. Where the original was concerned primarily with the mechanics of the plot, “The Departed,” set now on the mean streets of Boston, gives real weight to the characters. It examines the two double agents’ conflicted emotions. It allows the gravity of the situation to sink in, refusing to let it be just a cool crime flick.
Yet it’s also a pretty cool crime flick. Just think of the intricate possibilities in such a twisted set-up: Billy Costigan (new Scorsese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio) is a screw-up from the wrong side of the tracks who, against all odds, becomes a state police officer. Given Costigan’s unsavory background, Chief Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his abusive right-hand man Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) figure he’d make a believable undercover agent, so they send him into the bowels of a mafia operation run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Meanwhile, Costello long ago took a fatherless boy under his wing and taught him the family business of extortion and violence. The boy is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and he’s just graduated from the academy to become a state police officer, upholding the law while continuing to keep Costello informed of any police activity that relates to him.
Consider what will happen when the police department suspects they’ve got a rat in their midst and Sullivan — who IS the rat — is assigned to figure out who it is. He can’t confess, obviously, but he can’t report back and say he came up empty, either. He has to finger someone.
Imagine the parallel scenario in Costello’s camp. He thinks one of his guys is disloyal to him. But how does a gangster run background checks on his thugs? How do you ferret out a snitch when your whole operation is based on deceit and corruption?
The plot is a work of beauty in its own right, for which most of the credit goes to the Hong Kong filmmakers who originated it. Scorsese brings out subtle themes, though, effortlessly creating this hostile world of casual racism and casual violence and making it seem both extraordinary and believable.
The film is all about communication, or the lack of it. One side of the law-enforcement team doesn’t know what the other side is doing, Sullivan doesn’t know one of his fellow cops has been sent into Costello’s den, the Feds who know who the undercover officers are won’t tell anyone else. Both Sullivan and Costigan must send furtive text messages to their secret bosses to keep them apprised, all the while trying not to be discovered by the people around them.
And like a lot of Scorsese’s movies, “The Departed” is ultimately about masculinity, too. Crime and crime-abatement are both boys’ clubs, and there’s barely a female character to be found in the film. The only significant one, a police shrink played by Vera Farmiga, gives Costigan and Sullivan an outlet to do something they can’t do with other men: communicate. Even within the police department there are figurative pissing matches and actual fist-fights between guys who are supposed to be on the same team yet who let pride and machismo determine their behavior.
The acting is sharp all around. Your skepticism of “Titanic” pretty boy Leonardo DiCaprio will hopefully have worn off by now so you can appreciate Costigan’s increasing horror at the things he sees while in Costello’s employ, his commitment to police work wavering as he fears he may never get out of this undercover operation. Note also how Matt Damon’s unflinching two-facedness starts to crack as things get hairy in the film’s last act. Admire Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg as two good cops, and Alec Baldwin as a tart-tongued fast-talking federal agent, able to be funny and menacing simultaneously.
And then dish yourself up a huge helping of Jack Nicholson as Costello. Viewed at first only in shadows, often shot from low angles to emphasize his power, sporting a goatee that makes his waggling eyebrows seem all the more satanic, Costello is the devil himself. He lives a life of pure debauchery (money, drugs, women, murder), enjoying evil for all it’s worth. Nicholson plays the role to the hilt, reveling in the character’s monstrosity without ever going over the top. Like Scorsese, Nicholson is a senior citizen who proves occasionally that he’s still got the touch.
“The Departed” is the rare Hollywood feature that appears to have been made by someone who actually understands the language of film, who can do things with light and shadows, with camera positioning, with sound and music, to create feelings. That’s to say nothing of Scorsese’s knack for drawing pitch-perfect performances from his actors, as already noted. This is an excellent film, a throwback to the grittier, more substantial crime dramas of the ’70s, and a reminder that movies can have weight to them and still be enjoyable as entertainment.
A- (2 hrs., 29 min.; )