In the past few years, it seems as if Martin Scorsese has been trying very hard to make films that can't readily be identified as, well, Martin Scorsese films. Gangs of New York and The Aviator are certainly good movies, but they lack the mugs, goombahs and made-men of such from-the-heart Scorsese classics as Mean Streets and GoodFellas.
The Departed is a Scorsese movie and proud of it. And that's part of what makes it so very good. That, and an excellent script penned by William Monahan and a dream cast headed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.
A hugely successful 2002 Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs, provides the blueprint that is essentially a tale of two moles. Or brother rats, if you like.
One, Colin Sullivan (Damon), is deeply embedded in the Massachusetts State Police Department. The other, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), has newly infiltrated the Irish mafia led by the savage and irrepressible Frank Costello (Nicholson).
In a scenario worthy of Dickens, Colin was recruited at a soda fountain as a kid by a suspiciously friendly Frank who took him under his wing like a surrogate father. He did so, we quickly learn, for the sole purpose of raising his own private rat — an insider who can tip him off whenever the cops are coming his way.
Billy, who also grew up in South Boston, was all but fated to become one of Frank's boyos. To change that was one reason he went into law enforcement. But as far as avuncular Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his hard-nosed assistant, Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg, in a firecracker of a performance), are concerned, Billy's “tainted” background makes him the perfect choice to go undercover.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg (Dignam), Martin Sheen (Oliver Queenan), Ray Winstone (Mr. French), Alec Baldwin (Ellerby)
Running time: 149 minutes
Taiwan Release: Currently showing
The kicker? Each is assigned to find the mole inside their respective group. Or, as Colin exults to his mentor, “Hey, Frank! I gotta find myself!”
Billy isn't quite as enthusiastic. Now that Frank and his lieutenant, French (Ray Winstone, solid), know there's an informer, they're liable to do anything. Begging Dignam to pull him off the job, he explodes, “Do you want him to chop me up and feed me to the poor?”
These two marvelous actors make the most of their contrasting characters — Damon's cock-of-the-walk smoothie versus DiCaprio's scared-stiff sacrificial lamb. It's also a nifty bit of countercasting since Damon (the Bourne movies aside) is generally cast as the “innocent” and DiCaprio as the brash know-it-all.
Yet each is the other's doppelganger, too. Both spend most of the movie getting out of one tight spot after another. In one sequence where Billy shadows Colin, trying to see his face, they even wear almost identical baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts. They're so good, they accomplish the small miracle of preventing Nicholson from stealing the movie.
Not that he doesn't try. Sporting a devilish The Witches of Eastwick goatee, his eyebrows working at hyper-speed, the legendary actor cavorts through the picture, having so much fun that, at times, he teeters on doing, well, a Jack Nicholson impersonation.
Nicholson flirts with showboating, but how can he help it when he's given so many great bits. In one scene, he asks an underling about his mother and the poor man sighs she's dying. Nicholson snaps back, “We all are. Act accordingly.”
The Departed is Scorsese acting accordingly — fast, fluid and light on his feet. He's helped enormously by Monahan's clever adaptation, which firmly transplants the action to South Boston. For instance, one character quotes Freud: “The Irish are the only people impervious to psychoanalysis.”