Martin Scorsese delivers a deft bit of deception with his bloody new thriller
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Famed New York director Martin Scorsese rarely abandons the Big Apple for another zip code. And only once before has he attempted a remake (1991’s juicy Cape Fear). But, with the release of his newest film, he’s managed a surprising one-two punch.
The Departed is a remake of a Hong Kong thriller from 2002 titled Infernal Affairs. Flavorfully rescripted by writer William Monahan (whose only previous screen credit was, oddly enough, the muddled crusade saga Kingdom of Heaven), Scorsese’s film cannibalizes only the barest internal framework of the original. Set in the cops-and-robbers world of inner-city Boston, the film introduces us to Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon, happy to let loose his native accent). Sullivan is a neighborhood kid from South Boston who grows up under the wing of local Irish crime kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). On Frank’s suggestion, the adult Colin joins up with the Massachusetts state police, giving Costello an insider’s view of the men who might try to bring him down.
At the same time, we meet Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a hard-luck kid whose family has been intimately connected with the Boston mob. Intelligent, angry and with something to prove, Billy goes to the police academy. Before graduation, however, he’s recruited by a sharp-eyed captain (Martin Sheen) and his right-hand man (Mark Wahlberg) to infiltrate the mob. Kicked out of the academy and sent off to jail on fake charges, Billy has soon established himself as a neighborhood screwup. In time, his antics catch the attentions of Mr. Costello, who recruits him to join the organization. And here’s where things get interesting.
We’ve got an undercover mobster who’s infiltrated the cops and an undercover cop who’s infiltrated the mobsters. Eventually, these two pretenders are asked to help sniff out the informer in their respective organizations. This sets off a delicate game of cat and mouse (or rat and rat), in which each man is looking for the other while pretending to hunt down himself. It sounds complicated, but Scorsese isn’t out to recreate the epic Goodfellas or the gritty Mean Streets here. The Departed is the first (only?) full-on popcorn flick Scorsese has made since the aforementioned Cape Fear. His goal is to have some fun, and he proceeds as if the entire thing were some incredibly grim black comedy.
Monahan’s script helps immensely in this respect, offering loads of amusing dialogue for everyone to mouth. Wahlberg, especially, seems to be enjoying his role, speaking entirely in foul-mouthed schoolyard cutdowns. Nicholson, not so surprisingly, is in top form here. It’s clear he’s ad-libbing a lot of his lines, and the film is all the better for his unpredictable performance. Damon and DiCaprio are nicely matched, even though they have very few scenes together. The film hinges on the twin trajectories of these two characters: Colin, who seems to relish his job as a mole, and Billy, who becomes increasingly more disturbed by the potentially deadly position.
Scorsese doesn’t scrimp on the violence, delivering some of his most wince-inducing scenes since Goodfellas. Even so, the film never feels bleak or overpowering. The plot, with its multiple levels of deception, borders on the ridiculous. Scorsese happily keeps it there, hovering just below a completely over-the-top parody of Hollywood action flicks. He takes the script’s complicated game of cups and balls at face value, shuffling the cups with blinding speed and leaving his audience goggle-eyed. Viewers can be reasonably assured they’re going to get rooked in this game, but it sure will be entertaining watching the feints, cheats and deceptions of some extremely deft liars play out on screen.