by David Cornelius
People like to talk about Martin Scorsese in the past tense. Yet here is a man demanding to be discussed in modern terms: his “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” and now his newest work, “The Departed,” make up a string of masterworks. Add in his recent documentary fare (“The Blues,” “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home”), and you have an artist who, like his fellow filmmakers Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, is smack dab in the middle of a career renaissance, delivering what will most certainly be remembered as some of the very best work of a most important career.Most notable about “The Departed” is that not only is it a remake, but a remake of a modern film: Andrew Lau’s crime thriller “Infernal Affairs.” Scorsese has dipped his toes in the remake pool before (“Cape Fear” earned much praise, although I still prefer the chilling original), but here, he takes a major risk. American updates of recent Asian hits are trendy these days, but they always fall short of the original. Until now. “Infernal Affairs” was a terrific chunk of action entertainment, and yet “The Departed” manages to improve upon it in every way.
"Once again, Martin Scorsese reminds you just how good movies can get."
The success comes from the desire to avoid a direct remake, but instead to capture the essence of the story and build the rest from the ground up. And so the core of the story exactly is the same in both films - a cop goes undercover in the mob, a mobster goes undercover in the police force, and both are asked to investigate the existence of a mole; in other words, both have to investigate themselves without giving themselves away, while trying to uncover each other along the way - yet these are two entirely different films. “Infernal Affairs” told this story as an Asian cop thriller, slick and glossy and cool. “The Departed” tells this story as an American gangster drama, dark and gritty and cold.
Indeed, comparisons are bound to come not from Lau’s film, but from Scorsese’s own history: “GoodFellas,” “Mean Streets,” “Casino.” “The Departed” feels from start to finish like a Martin Scorsese movie. It’s vulgar and violent and brassy and bold, loaded with an American rock soundtrack, filled with characters firmly planted in a cultural heritage enhanced by generations of rough, urban living.
The culture here is Boston Irish, where untouchable mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) rules all. He has sent his man Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to the police academy, where he works his way up the ranks and into the Special Investigations Unit, allowing him to keep an eye on those keeping an eye on Frank. Meanwhile, a top secret unit has sent rookie cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) undercover, working his way up the ranks and into the confidence of none other than Frank Costello. Both are under so long that the lines become blurred, and the emotional stability of both young men shatters.
On its own, this is one hell of a set-up. “The Departed” stays true to almost all of the “Infernal Affairs” plot turns, right down to a gripping set piece in which a sting operation has Sullivan and Costigan both racing to tip off their own side while going unnoticed by their adopted teams. But whereas Lau’s movie focused on the “what” of the situation - what happens, and how - Scorsese’s looks more closely at the “who.” This is a gangster thriller dominated by character. The sting operation is essentially the same scene in both films, but here, the weight is off beat-the-clock thriller theatrics and instead on the actions and reactions of the players themselves.
Much of the screenplay (from “Kingdom of Heaven” scribe William Monahan) is devoted to the personal downward spiral of both leads. Costigan becomes a pill-popping wreck, desperate to escape a life of pretend villainy, struggling to remain upright while living a life of murder and thievery. Sullivan has it easier, a budding romance with a psychiatrist (Vera Fermiga) leading to what appears to be a happy, worthy life (his upscale new apartment overlooks the statehouse, a symbol of justice staring him down every day), yet he, too, is being eaten from within, as paranoia grows. His efforts to avoid being found out grow every more frantic, so much that he leads a good man to his death just to cover his tracks. He is a natural liar, and such things appear to slide off him with ease, yet it’s obvious that he’s just not holding up.
What we get from DiCaprio and Damon is nothing short of extraordinary; both turn in the sharpest, most complex performances of their careers. This is no small feat, especially for DiCaprio, who in the past few years has grown into one of this generation’s top talents under the direction of Scorsese and Spielberg. Damon, meanwhile, delivers a flawless performance on par with his brilliant work in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Both bring exactly the sort of compelling, intricate, carefully constructed character work to a film that requires nothing less than brilliance.
At their side is a line-up of supporting players that impress with every scene: Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Mark Walhberg, Ray Winstone, Kevin Corrigan, each delivering turns that will go down as among the best in their respective careers. Heck, even Anthony Anderson is great here.
As for Nicholson, his return to screen villainy is a welcome treat, with the star’s familiar smooth criminal ways supplying his character with the right mix of playful wickedness and straight-up evil. Here is an actor relishing a character who is relishing the dark side of life. Nicholson chews the scenery, the costumes, the props, and whatever else he can grab, building Frank Costello into a devil like none other.
And oh, just listen to the dialogue he gets to have flow off his tongue. Upon hearing that a schlub’s mother is “on her way out,” he tosses off with: “We all are. Act accordingly.” After assassinating some anonymous couple, he pauses to creepily, casually reflect on the results: “She fell funny.” And in a movie riddled with a certain four-letter word (variants of which appear 226 times throughout), it’s Nicholson’s Frank that gives the expletive such poetry.
Yes, the script is vulgar, ridiculously so, and yet it is indeed poetry. Monahan finds a way to work wonders into the words of his characters, the way they reflect on life. Profane insults are treated the way a great pitcher treats a curveball. (Wahlberg’s character mainly exists to sit in a corner and verbally abuse anyone who gets in his way, and it’s some of the best stuff, funny or otherwise, in the movie.) Monahan does not use language as a crutch, a shortcut to presenting “life on the street.” Instead, he finds the way people talk and he amplifies it, working wonders out of the foulest of words. The profanity, the insults, the vileness of the language helps build and enhance, not replace, character cores.
The same can be said of the violence, which is brutal and up-front throughout. “The Departed” features blood, yes, but it is not a movie about blood alone. The graphic nature of the film is a result of the world in which the characters must dwell. Scorsese uses the violence as an extension of that world, and not, as it would be in a lesser film, as the sole reason for such a world.With all this behind it - and with flawless work from composer Howard Shore, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who presents what very well may be the single finest work in her entire illustrious career and helps elevate the film to even greater heights) at its side - “The Departed” goes down as one of Scorsese’s very best efforts. This is a monumental work, a crime thriller that defies its remake status by coming off as fresh and original, a gritty bit of cinema that recalls Scorsese’s dirtiest gangster flicks of the past yet remains entirely of the present. This is a brilliant story retold with the flourish of a master.
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originally posted: 10/22/06 07:52:04