Returns to the fertile crime genre that made him a legend, Martin Scorsese roars back with guns blazing in “The Departed.” This is sensational cinema, exploding with outstanding, testosterone-heavy performances and vivid Boston street politics. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio, in another beautifully internalized piece of acting) is a new police recruit offered a dangerous undercover job by his superiors (Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg). His mission is to infiltrate the expansive world of Boston crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) from within, posing as a low-class criminal. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon, a perfect match for DiCaprio) is one of Costello’s men who has joined the police force as a mole to keep tabs on the cops. As both men sink deeper into their counterfeit roles, they learn more about each other, leading to a feverish hunt where they both scramble to reveal the other’s true identity without breaking their own cover.
There’s a very good reason why director Martin Scorsese is considered top of the pops of his profession; he’s one of the few classic filmmakers working today, deliberate with his visual ideas and triumphant in directorial rhythms. “Departed” returns Scorsese to the criminal underworld, arguably is his most fertile creative area, and the company suits him well. This is undoubtedly one of the maestro’s finest films.
A loose remake of the 2002 Hong Kong actioner, “Infernal Affairs,” “The Departed” heads about as opposite of the Far East as it can possibly get. The star of the show here isn’t the million-watt cast, but the gritty, soiled streets of Boston. This film bleeds green; Scorsese dangles the viewer into the Irish-infested waters of Beantown where outsiders aren’t welcome and the curious are killed in a hurry. It goes above and beyond “Haaavaaad Paaak” accents and smoky, Guinness-stained bars; Scorsese captures “Departed” with ravenous street authenticity, staging action in specially selected locations. He drenches the picture in careful class-warfare minutiae, grounding the picture in a dark reality, upping the claustrophobia of the streets, and expanding on the history of the hatred between these men (where being from the wrong neighborhood is an instant sign of weakness).
“The Departed” is a violent, far-reaching crime saga that continuously weaves to best realize the roller-coaster ride of the plot. The screenplay by William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) explores the hair-trigger temper of these characters, using the hunt for Costello merely as a starting point for bigger, dramatic fish to fry. The film runs 2.5 hours (“Infernal Affairs” ran 100 minutes), leaving plenty of space for the screenwriter to get into Billy and Colin’s heads as they trek deeper into their fraud.
Scorsese does a masterful job cutting between the stories, yet gracefully matching their dread and purpose. The director keeps both sides of conflict moving at top speed, even when they diverge from their thriller elements into romantic longing and regret (embodied well here by actress Vera Farmiga). “The Departed” is tonally confident and visually ambitious in ways only Scorsese can pull off with gusto and precision, scored with a hiccupy mix-tape of bash-ya-head-in tunes from a broken iPod. After barely surviving the majestic “Gangs of New York,” and taking a breather with “The Aviator,” “The Departed” resuscitates the younger, itchier Scorsese of the “Taxi Driver” years with its beautifully framed compositions and concentration on startling street violence. It’s a humdinger of a directing job.
The acting is just as top shelf, with special notice paid to Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin (playing Colin’s police superior) as the two actors who really go all the way in their interpretation of Irish bravado. They’re massive amounts of fun to watch, and generously add to the film’s already pert sense of humor.
Nicholson’s performance as Costello is the film’s biggest indulgence. Scorsese runs a tight ship when it comes to the acting, but Nicholson is not a talent that can be corralled easily. His work approaches a performance art level of wonder in “The Departed,” with the actor making the most of the Lucifer-incarnate periphery of the character. It’s scenery-chewing, unabashed ham, but it clicks with the rest of film. Nicholson provides a multitude of reasons why Costello is both loved and feared with an exclamation point.
Where most films break down and die in the third act, “The Departed” only gets stronger. Its deliberate elongation pays particular attention to the conflict between Colin and Billy and their shared paranoia. When the two finally have their showdown in the sun, the payoff is a stunning opera of double-crosses, blunt trauma, and long-gestating neighborhood retribution.
“The Departed” is a road map of a crime thriller, and a terrific one at that. Under Scorsese’s assured hand, it blossoms as a crushing, carefully throttled tale of deception and underworld horror. It is easily one of the more finely threaded, psychologically intricate films you’ll see this year.Rating: A