After exploring turn-of-the-century immigrant hoods in Gangs of NewYork and billionaire Howard Hughes in The Aviator, MartinScorsese returns to the mean streets he knows so well with TheDeparted, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime flick InfernalAffairs.
Choosing South Boston instead of New York City this time around (much ofthe film was still shot in the Big Apple), The Departed focuses ontwo Massachusetts State Police officers: street-smart William Costigan Jr.(Leonardo DiCaprio) and the ambitious Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). The twohave never met, but their lives will become intertwined courtesy of Southiemob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the main target of the State’s waron organized crime.
Costigan accepts an undercover assignment to infiltrate Costello’sorganization. Sullivan, to whom Costello has been a father figure to sincehe was a kid, works his way up the Special Investigation Unit food chainwhile doubling as Costello’s informant inside the Department. For a while,each man handles their double life quite well. But as the saying goes, all”good” things must come to an end: both the police and Costello are growingsuspicious that they each have an informant on their payroll.
With solid turns by Andy Lau and Tony Leung and an emphasis on story andthemes instead of over-the-top action scenes (a facet of Hong Kong cinemathat got old for me about 14 years ago), Infernal Affairs was one ofthe better Asian crime thrillers I have seen in a while. Involving withoutbeing flashy or melodramatic, the strength of its drama stemmed from itsperformances and a solid script.
In comparison to this new film, however, Infernal Affairs seems a bitanemic. It’s no real fault of that film, which I recommend you rent on DVD.It’s simply a matter of having one of American cinema’s top visionariesgetting hold of the material and working with a first-rate screenwriter,cast and crew to really turn it into something special.
Departed finds Scorsese once again working at the top of his game.His directing is a bit more laid-back and less flashy than previously, butno less impressive or vigorous because of it. He moves the story along withgreat confidence and ease, examining the multiple characters that inhabitthe story without sacrificing pacing or the continually mounting tension.Backed by his longtime collaborators (editor Thelma Schoonmaker,cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and production designer Kristi Zea),Scorsese draws you into this brutal, seedy universe of cops and criminalsright from the start and refuses to let you go for the next 151 minutes(which feels more like 75).
As great as Marty’s work is, William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven)deserves an equal amount of praise for his excellent screenplay adaptation.Monahan remains quite faithful to Infernal in terms of story, butgoes the extra mile to create story and character depth. He also does aterrific job transporting the story from Hong Kong to Boston andincorporating the city’s minutiae. His dialogue is sharp, profane and attimes, hilarious. And his examinations of the original’s loyalty andidentity themes (as well as a subplot involving a psychiatrist, played byVera Farmiga) are given plenty of room to breathe and grow. This is a smart,layered piece of work worthy of awards recognition.
The icing on Departed‘s cake is its remarkable ensemble cast.Nicholson, who based Costello on Southie crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger,alternates between menace and humour perfectly. DiCaprio and Damon eachhandle their roles with great conviction, while Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwinand Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone deliver superb supporting roles. Everybodygives it their all, working together without overshadowing one another tobring to life Monahan’s dialogue and characters with brilliantprecision.
Is The Departed Scorsese’s best work since Goodfellas? No(that honour belongs to 2005’s remarkable documentary Bob Dylan: NoDirection Home), but it sure comes close. Unfortunately, I doubt it willwin Scorsese the Best Director award at next year’s Oscars. But in the end,will that really matter? Once the Academy has done its thing, The Departed will still be then what is now: a brutal beauty ofa film.