The Departed (2006) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for brutal violence, pervasive language, sexuality, nudity, and drug use
Running Time: 149 min.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Kevin Corrigan, Anthony Anderson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: William Monahan (based on the movie, Infernal Affairs, written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong)
I wonder how much more praise I would bestow upon the return of Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, Gangs of New York) to the world of gritty crime dramas had I not seen the film it is based on several times, Hong Kong's nifty, plot-driven thriller Infernal Affairs. Judging from the audience reaction in the packed theater I saw The Departed in, the vast majority sitting around me have never seen (or probably heard of) the original film, as many of the gasps and moments of comedic irony come directly from the Andrew Lau film itself. Since I knew that many of the surprises were coming, my level of excitement was not nearly as high, and as much as I tried to shut out my recollection of the original film, it is just too recent in the memory (made in 2002). While I would probably recommend viewing The Departed over Infernal Affairs to the uninitiated viewer due to its increased emphasis on character, there's just something about the way that the Hong Kong original develops its ending that makes the film feel more sinister and unsettling. My recommendation: watch them both, but I think it might be better to see the Scorsese film first in order to feel the full impact, and then the other out of curiosity.
In The Departed, Jack Nicholson (Something's Gotta Give, Anger Management) plays Irish-American crime boss Frank Costello, a who twenty years ago made an investment in a local kid, Colin Sullivan (Damon, Syriana), priming him to work in the Massachusetts State Police in order to extract information that will keep him out of harm's way. Meanwhile, another local kid born into a troubled crime family, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio, Catch Me If You Can), also tries to put his past behind him by becoming a cop, but he is quickly tagged and sent to do undercover work as a mole for the police force, working his way up the criminal ladder until he finally arrives as part of Costello's inner sanctum. Both factions, the cops and the crooks, begin to suspect they have a mole in their midst, and as they try to sniff him out, things get dicey in the cat-and-mouse game to stop the shipment of missile defense technology from exchanging hands to the Chinese government.
The Departed is a film of foils, in the classic Shakespearean mold, where the two sides are mirror opposites of each other, just as you'd find in any chess match. The real drawing interest of the film comes through the intricate nuances caused by the conflicted loyalties for everyone in the know about what's going on, and the constant peril that the protagonist and antagonist are in during nearly every scene. It draws you in slowly, building up a great deal of tension, finally letting it all unravel at a very fast pace, keeping you off your guard with twists, turns, and unexpected developments. It is a bold, violent concoction that always keeps the audience on edge, mostly due to its serpentine structure, with both sides constantly trying to get the upper hand.
While I do feel that Scorsese's film is, in some important respects, better overall than Infernal Affairs due to its emphasis on character development, richer themes, and more fleshed out motivations, there are at least two reasons why I think that it will never make Infernal Affairs obsolete. One is that Infernal Affairs made the bad mole (represented by Damon's character) more conflicted about what he was doing, leading to a level of complexity involved as to whether or not he was really helping or hurting his crime boss during each scene. This also leads to an amorally brilliant ending that The Departed is largely missing. While Scorsese's ending is far from a crowd pleaser, it doesn't quite feel as resonant or interesting, with a final sight gag that will get a few parting snickers, although in reality, it is quite silly.
The other reason is that the approach was much more balanced between the two sides. In Scorsese's version, Nicholson's Costello is just so much more formidable a presence than Sheen's (Spawn) task force chief Queenan, and in his own twisted way, he's just a bit more likeable. In fact, Nicholson's character is given a great deal more screen time, to the point where the balance of the film feels a bit off, sometimes feeling like the film is more about Costello and his sex life much more than it is about his quest to survive in the rat-eat-rat world of underworld crime. While Nicholson is a hoot, he really shouldn't have been the main focus, and many scenes involving him feel a bit superfluous to the overall themes, despite their intended humor value.
One final nitpick: Scorsese relies far too much on the "sudden punch in the face" to resolve conflicts. Every time someone hears something they don't like, things immediate devolve into forced fisticuffs. Perhaps one hothead in the mix would have been realistic, but I counted at least a half dozen different characters who just flat out punch someone in the face when they find something displeasing. It is a dramatic device that wears out its welcome early but doesn't go away.
I realize that what I've just written sound like a negative review, and I really don't intend it to be. I actually like The Departed, and more than just a little bit. I suppose I'm just a little frustrated that a good movie could have been a near masterpiece with just a bit more focus and effort. Watch this for Scorsese's effortless style. Watch this for the delicious performances by a fantastic cast. Watch this for the well-orchestrated plot and gripping tension. Watch this because it is one of the best thrillers of the year. Just be sure to also watch the original film, Infernal Affairs, right after in order to see why Scorsese ultimately missed the boat in terms of turning a skillfully-plotted thriller into another of his resplendent masterworks by not going the entire distance in recreating the playfully wicked twists to the very end.
©2006 Vince Leo