First-rate cast powers Scorsese

The Departed

on October 06, 2006 by John P. McCarthy
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We know Martin Scorsese can plumb the Italian Mafioso's soul, but what about the psyche of an Irish gangster or cop? His reworking of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs offers a second chance to find out following the Gangs of New York. He succeeds in creating a bleak picture with a fatalistic Irish sensibility, yet it doesn't offer remarkable insight into what sets this particular criminal element, or its Boston milieu, apart. The power of The Departed derives from colliding good guys and bad guys at a meta-level where instinct and intellect are equally important; it's an excitingly labyrinthine treatment of the perennial theme that cops and crooks, no matter their ethnic extraction, are fundamentally the same.

There's the expected amount of testosterone-fueled violence, racism and misogyny coursing through the film, but, unless they want it splattered all over the wall, the protagonists are also forced to use their impressive amounts of gray matter. Two Massachusetts State Troopers with roots in South Boston become moles -- Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) inside the department on behalf of mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) deep undercover inside Costello's operation. These alter egos allow their respective identities and loyalties to be scrambled as they become two rats trapped in a maze designed by law-enforcement officials and the cheerily ghoulish Costello. The story gets dizzying at times, especially when Sullivan is assigned to root himself out, and a series of late twists keep heads spinning.

Damon is steely and self-assured, but DiCaprio takes the acting honors in an ensemble with no slouches. Nicholson's flourishes as the philosophical prankster-mobster seem to throw things out of whack until you realize the imbalance is more attributable to Scorsese's lack of comfort inside the cop environment, where the action isn't staged as well and which is peopled by less colorful and somehow less plausible figures. Having Costigan and Sullivan get involved with the same shrink (Vera Famigna) is a superfluous plot addition, and William Monahan's script has a blustery, David Mamet quality that could be modulated in places. While the tech credits are fine, The Departed unspools so much like a high-grade police procedural that the locale and atmosphere are secondary.

Costigan and Sullivan occupy a no-man's land between the lawful and the illicit, public service and thuggery. For them, straddling both worlds is at once natural and difficult. The same goes for Scorsese. Fortunately he's talented enough to pull it off. Audience members should feel glad about being on the outside, since you're tempted to conclude crime and crime-fighting are both for suckers, noble as the latter may be. Being a rat certainly doesn't pay, no matter which side you're on. Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga and Alec Baldwin.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: William Monahan
Producers: Brad Pitt, Brad Grey and Graham King
Genre: Crime drama
Rating: R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material
Running time: 137 min.
Release Date: October 6

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