Directed by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese returns to his roots with a well-crafted crime thriller. The Departed is spy vs. spy story set in Boston’s Irish-ethnic criminal underworld. Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a Massachusetts state cop (referred to as a “statie” – I love the expression) who was groomed from boyhood to work for his mentor, kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). His counterpart: honest, upstanding police recruit Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose family connections with the mob make him an excellent choice to be a spy for the state police inside Costello’s organization. Both spies are scared to death of being discovered so there’s constant tension in the air as the film cuts back and forth between the police and the mob.
The heart of the film is a two-sided cat and mouse game. Both the police and the mob are trying to flush out the mole in their organization while using their mole to the best advantage. One great scene involves a sale by the mob of high-tech computer chips (with military applications) to Chinese agents. The police know about the sale and are trying to set up an arrest. The scene is very well set up: we cut back and forth between the police and the mob as both moles play their parts. Jack Nicholson gets to give a speech at an armed face-off with the Chinese – the speech is classic “Jack.”
I had a little trouble deciding how I felt about the way Jack Nicholson’s character fits into the film as a whole. He uses his trademark facial expressions to wonderful effect but this type of mob kingpin seems much more appropriate for a Batman–type movie than a realistic, present-day crime thriller. That ties in with one of my beliefs: that a filmmaker should either go realistic (and be consistent with respect to production design, acting, story – everything) or go for a stylized feel which allows much more artistic freedom. Overall, The Departed is a very realistic film so letting Jack Nicholson cut loose and give a wild, stylized performance can be seen as inconsistent with just about everything else. However, after seeing the film several times, I’m convinced that the way they did it was, in fact, the right way go. Even though Jack Nicholson’s wild and crazy Frank Costello couldn’t possibly have survived at the top of a crime organization for decades (as the movie asks us to believe), I found the character so enjoyable that I was willing to forgive the fact that it’s out of place in a realistic story.
A good storyteller’s first crucial task is to introduce his characters: show the viewer who they are by showing how they arrived at the place in their lives where the action begins. Martin Scorsese does a wonderful job of developing both of the moles. We meet Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as a young neighborhood boy taken under Frank Costello’s wing then see him as a foul-mouthed but conformist police recruit who advances rapidly by knowing how to push the right buttons inside the state police organization. At the same time Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a hard-working recruit who reluctantly accepts the task of infiltrating the mob then gradually works his way into Costello’s organization by passing many tests -- playing a convincing bad guy. Another well-written and flawlessly-acted character is Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg – as a Boston native, he nails the accent as does fellow Bostonian Matt Damon). Dignam is on the special operations unit that “runs” undercover agent Costigan. He’s also the only one who has suspicions about Sullivan. If you believe as I do that the test of an outstanding film is character development, The Departed passes in spades.
One character that I was less thrilled by was the shrink played by Vera Farmiga. She dates both Sullivan and Costello – so she’s a crucial connection between both moles. She was convincing as the mutual girlfriend – but not very believable as a professional therapist since she talked about herself and other patients with both of them.
The Departed is actually a remake of a very successful Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, which hasn’t, as of this writing, been distributed in the US. Miramax bought the US distribution rights but hasn’t set a release date. I can’t wait.
Images are copyright Warner Brothers Pictures.
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