← Back to Reviews

The Departed (Martin Scorsese)

After helping to define the modern gangster genre with Mean Streets (1973), GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Martin Scorsese returns to the world of organized crime, though this time coming at it from a much different angle. In those previous films, Scorsese took a naturalistic approach to the material. Yes his camera movements and editing style were evident, but as far as how the characters and their job of being criminals was tackled, it was stripped of the mythology of the '30s and '40s movie mobsters and looked at the workaday life of a criminal. Mean Streets and GoodFellas especially were less Operatic than Coppola's Godfathers. Those films influenced a couple generations of subsequent filmmakers, not just in America but around the world. One of those distant influences can be seen in Wai Keung Lau & Siu Fai Mak's Mou Gaan Du - Infernal Affairs (2002), so it's all coming full circle now that Scorsese is remaking it.

The Departed is set on the Irish South Side of Boston, where Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) rules the streets with his murderous crew (including Ray Winstone and David O'Hara). Like most kingpins his activities are well-known, but the Police can't ever seem to make anything stick well enough to bring him down. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) are higher-ups in a special department that has virtual autonomy to work their own way to get Costello. They hand-pick a young recruit (Leonardo DiCaprio) to work deep undercover and infultrate the crew. He has ties to the neighborhood and relatives who worked for Costello over the years, so he seems like a natural choice. At the same time Costello is doing some influtrating of his own, with his own hand-picked kid from the streets (Matt Damon) who has enrolled in the academy with hopes of working his way up the ranks and giving the criminals their own inside man. Both the crooks and the cops suspect they have moles in the midst, but neither one can identify the other. And so starts a cat & mouse game of disinformation, loyalty and deception.

For those who know Infernal Affairs, all the major beats and similar character types are in place, and though the finale has a couple additional little layers to it, this is a pretty straight remake in terms of plotting and basic dynamics. But Scorsese and company do also make it their own. The Boston setting in contrast to Scorsese's usual New York City stomping grounds (NYC has served as the backdrop for ten of his feature films from Mean Streets through Gangs of New York) is a nice change. And Scorsese is going back to the new genre myths that have been formed in his wake. There is almost no sense of what Costello and his crew do on a day-to-day basis to make their living. And for his first real depiction of the law enforcement side of the coin, there isn't much procedural detail either, other than as it relates directly to the undercover assignment. The movie takes for granted that the audience knows from hundreds of other movies and television shows how the good guys and bad guys do their things. The Departed is not a documentary-like look at either world, rather it is a genre exercise of pure entertainment. Much like Spike Lee's Inside Man from earlier this year, this is an unabashed good old fashioned "movie" movie from a filmmaker who usually does much more.

Scorsese's early work was largely influential, but rarely worked strictly inside genre, instead working against the expectations and modes. The first time Scorsese really consciously attacked a genre was his other re-make, Cape Fear (1991). But while he reveled in playing with and amping up the thriller conventions, he also added a dark moral complexity that most even less over-the-top efforts address. The Departed is much more straightforward in that regard.

When all is said and done, The Departed works very well. It's not really set up as a mystery for the most part, as we know immediately who DiCaprio and Damon are. It's more about the fun of watching each side play the game. The "twists" during the conclusion are fine, and even if you haven't seen Infernal Affairs you'll probably anticipate most of them. The acting is good to great pretty much all around in this star-studded cast. Leo and Matt are both well-suited for their duplicitous roles at the center of the narrative. Nicholson doesn't really do anything he hasn't done before, but it's a magnetic movie star performance all the same. The one aspect I missed from the original is there was much more of a bond and mutal respect between what are the Nicholson and Sheen characters in the remake. That relationship is even better examined in the first Infernal Affairs sequel, but it's definitely more prevalent and palpable in the original rather than Scorsese's remake. Sheen and Nicholson do have one face-to-face meeting, but there was just more of a personal dimension to the cat & mouse game in the Hong Kong film.

The supporting cast is terrific. Alec Baldwin and Wahlberg steal every secen they're in getting the funniest dialogue, and Winstone is a great presence as always. The one weak link I thought was Vera Farmiga as the sole female role of any wieght and screentime. Kelly Chin was more credible in the original as the psychiatrist treating one of the moles and in love with the other. I don't buy Farmiga as either a doctor or a lover and while the role is a bit underwritten I suspect a better actress could have made more of it. But it's a relatively minor quibble, and even with Nicholson in there it's really DiCaprio and Damon's movie and they're both very good.

There's a nice energy and look to the movie with longtime collaborators editor Thelma Schoonmaker and D.P. Michael Ballhaus making it all sing across the screen. It's two and a half hours long (about forty minutes longer than the original), but doesn't drag at all; very well paced and constructed. And while there is violence and the threat of violence throughout, most of the bloodletting is saved for a Hamlet-like final act...and then it gets VERY bloody. It's not especially ambitious and doesn't have the arc of something like Michael Mann's Heat, it's just a damned enjoyable flick.