I’d like to begin by thanking the Academy — for snubbing Martin Scorsese. Regardless of their respective merits, Scorsese’s last two pictures, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, felt like hat-in-hand pleas for acceptance by an organization that considers Crash, Chicago and American Beauty among the greatest of recent American films, and which holds Scorsese himself in considerably lower regard than Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and Rob Marshall. But with his new picture, The Departed, Scorsese seems to have abandoned his Gollum-like quest for golden trinkets, and the result is the best thing he’s done in ages — an exhilarating pulp entertainment.
Based on the popular 2002 Hong Kong action drama Infernal Affairs, The Departed tells the story of Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a bright young rookie in the Massachusetts State Police who, owing to some undisclosed family ties to the Beantownmafia, gets hand-picked for a top-secret assignment. “Do you want to be a cop or act like a cop?” Costigan is asked by an avuncular captain (Martin Sheen) and his pit-bull sergeant (Mark Wahlberg) before agreeing to sacrifice his identity and be reborn as a petty thug seeking entrance into the criminal machine of mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costello, who didn’t get to where he is without careful career management, has planted his own mole, the seemingly squeaky-clean Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), inside the very Special Investigations unit that has sent Costigan undercover.
Infernal Affairs, written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong and co-directed by Mak and Andrew Lau Wai Keung, was a diabolically clever wind-up machine executed with precision timing and air-tight internal logic, and The Departed effectively preserves its central tension — which rat will be the first to sniff the other out — and most of its jackknife twists and turns. In just about every other respect, Scorsese and the Boston-born screenwriter William Monahan (who writes dialogue that is like morsels of juicy steak in the actors’ mouths) go about putting their own stamp on things.
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For starters, where the Chinese film (and its subsequent prequel) aspired to a kind of modern Greek tragedy, The Departed is a full-tilt Grand Guignol splatterfest, in which the brain-blowing and bodily dismemberment commence early and don’t let up until the final, retributory act. (When it was released in China, Infernal Affairs had a moralistic re-shot ending tacked on to it at the behest of the Chinese censors; here, Scorsese and Monahan’s unfailing Catholic guilt prompts them to come up with one of their own devising.) And where the original film’s diminutive arch-villain was civil enough to sit down to dinner with his police pursuers, Costello is a preening, baroque sadist who, in one scene, uses a severed hand as an instructional tool and, in another, sports a blood-drenched blazer as though it were tailor made. In a performance that ranges between over-the-top and over-the-moon, Nicholson seems to be channeling his horny little devil character from The Witches of Eastwick — only it’s carnage, not eros, that gets Frank Costello hard. And he’s enormous fun to watch.
The Departed marks Scorsese’s third consecutive collaboration with DiCaprio, and it’s the first one in which you really understand what the director sees in his young muse. While I admired DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes in The Aviator more than his woefully unconvincing lover-fighter in Gangs, there was still precious little sense of an inner life to the character. He was fine as Hughes the hotshot entrepreneur, but as Hughes the toenail-and-urine-preserving obsessive he was a jumble of actorly “technique” in search of a center. Here, there are a few scenes in which you fear for the worst — during his first meeting with the court-ordered shrink (Vera Farmiga) who also happens to be Sullivan’s live-in girlfriend, DiCaprio so self-consciously mimics the young Robert DeNiro that you wish Farmiga would reach over and slap him. But for most of the movie, as Costigan plunges deeper into Frank’s crew, and as those few who know his true identity begin dropping like flies, DiCaprio harnesses a terrific, buggy intensity reminiscent of GoodFellas’ hopped-up Henry Hill (Ray Liotta).
Some will inevitably claims that The Departed is nothing more than a kind of greatest hits collection for Scorsese, who is certainly no stranger to stories of urban jungles seething with the ambitions of hot-blooded Guineas and Micks. Even I wouldn’t rush to call the movie one of Scorsese’s best — it doesn’t dig deep under the skin of its characters in the way of a Mean Streets or a Taxi Driver, and as a study of undercover police work, it rarely ventures more than ankle-high into the muddy psychological waters of this summer’s Miami Vice. But like the blaring classic rock ballads he has long favored for his soundtracks (“Gimme Shelter” and the electrifying Van Morrison cover of “Comfortably Numb” are among the highlights here), Scorsese’s hits are nothing to sniff at. Indeed, the very vibrancy of this movie is tied to its familiarity, to the thrill of seeing “Marty” shrug off his yen for enshrinement in some ersatz canon and rekindle the old razzle-dazzle — the pulse-quickening energy, the restless zooms and tracking shots, the explosions of gory violence — that once made every young film student in America want to be him (before they decided they wanted to be Tarantino instead). Maybe, just maybe, he might finally nab that elusive Oscar. But if so, I hope he doesn’t bother to show up.
THE DEPARTED | Directed by MARTIN SCORSESE | Written by WILLIAM MONAHAN, based on the motion picture Infernal Affairs directed ?by ANDREW LAU WAI KEUNG and ALAN MAK and written by MAK and FELIX CHONG | Produced by BRAD PITT, BRAD GREY and GRAHAM KING | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide