Brutal Departed a return to form for Scorsese

by Glen Baity

There are several things that can be safely assumed about a Martin Scorsese picture. One of those is that it will be, in its best moments, unbelievably intense. Another is that the man has a knack for coaxing amazing performances from his actors. Still another is that the film will be a near-perfect package of wit, violence and intrigue.

And these are all statements that apply to St. Marty’s latest, The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Chinese film Infernal Affairs. The only question is whether or not those elements will hang together in a satisfying package. The answer this time around is an emphatic “yes.”

Leonardo DiCaprio leads a terrific cast as Bill Costigan, a Boston Police trainee who gets the chance of a lifetime right out of the academy: Before he even gets to shine his department-issue shoes for the first time, he’s assigned to go deep undercover as part of an effort to take down Irish mafia boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

The undercover assignment is made more challenging by the fact that only two members of the department – Chief Queenan (Martin Sheen) and lead detective Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) know Costigan is a cop. Costigan, in keeping with his orders, has to portray himself as an authentic member of Frank’s crew: He has to get in bloody brawls, help orchestrate robberies and the sales of illegal goods, carry a gun and use it against the good guys. He’s assured he will, at some point, be arrested and serve time, to make himself all the more authentic. In the meantime, he’s scrubbed from the department’s payroll, his status as a police officer only theoretical for more than a year.

His investigation is complicated by the arrival of state police investigator Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a spy working for the other side. Frank has cultivated a lifelong relationship with Sullivan, using the hotshot detective’s true allegiances to try and ferret out the cop he suspects might have infiltrated his crew

The Departed centers on these battling moles, neither of which knows the other’s identity. Over the film’s two and a half hours, Sullivan and Costigan lead double lives, each compromising his own loyalties time and again, each chasing a phantom on the other side of a progressively blurry dividing line.

It’s gripping stuff, and a tremendous achievement for one of cinema’s elder statesmen. Scorsese has rarely been able to get his point across in less than two hours, and his predilection for films of epic length hasn’t always worked in his favor (Gangs of New York), though it generally does (The Aviator). The Departed is another entry into his personal canon that gets better the more time you spend with it. He starts this film with a panoramic view, his focus narrowing slowly until he reaches a claustrophobic, dynamite conclusion.

Scorsese’s mean streets have never been less forgiving than they are here, and he populates them with a band of caustic, rough-edged characters. Nicholson, in full “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” mode, rocks the house as Costello, a sociopath with a soft spot for his surrogate children, one or both of whom will ultimately betray him. DiCaprio, in his third Scorsese collaboration, continues his years-long apology for those fleeting heartthrob days. He’s in particularly fine form this time out, even if his Bahston accent, like many members of the cast (Crazy Jack included) leaves something to be desired.

The film’s premise sounds suspiciously like Donnie Brasco, focusing as it does on a rat inside the mob. But Scorsese’s work here doesn’t seem derivative of anything. To the contrary, and to his credit, he crafts a unique, compelling story out of some arguably too-familiar crime drama elements. That’s due in large part to the pacing, which is steady as a freight train. Three cheers, as well, for screenwriter William Monahan, whose noisy dialogue rattles off like machinegun fire in an urban war zone.

The Departed is that rarest of birds, a genre piece that really and truly works on multiple levels. There’s symbolic significance to a lot of what goes on in these characters’ turbulent lives, but there’s a purely visceral thrill in watching the perfectly staged action scenes and battles of wit. The film’s naked brutality is sure to repel some viewers, but none of it ever comes off as purposeless, and it doesn’t have the effect of desensitizing the audience: When main characters start dropping like flies, it’s exactly as jarring as it should be.

With his latest film, Scorsese reminds the viewer why he’s earned his place alongside cinema’s lions in winter who continue to roar as loudly as they ever have (see Eastwood, Clint). The Departed is among the first viable Best Picture contenders of 2006, and one of the best action films Scorsese, or anyone, has made in years.

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