After spending the last decade chasing an Oscar, Martin Scorsese has returned to the world of organized crime with The Departed, delivering his most entertaining film since 1991's Goodfellas.
Adapted from the 2003 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, Scorsese's film lacks the cool panache of the original, but showcases Scorsese's trademark themes of sin, betrayal and redemption. It's a carefully calibrated and detailed film that takes its time establishing the characters' complex histories.
Matt Damon is Colin Sullivan, a Massachusetts state trooper who's been groomed since childhood to infiltrate the Boston Police Department by his father figure, mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Quickly rising through the ranks, Colin provides Costello with vital information, while manipulating the system for his own success.
Colin learns, however, that his police unit has planted its own mole in Costello's crew. Working deep undercover, officer Billy Castigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) has infiltrated the group and earned the trust of Costello. As Colin and Billy attempt to uncover each other's identity, things are further complicated by a beautiful police psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) who unwittingly becomes involved in their lives.
Scorsese embraces the contrivances of screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven), creating a film that mixes genres with wit and grace. The Departed is equal parts character drama, cop thriller and police procedural, and though the plot is sometimes overly complex (particularly in the final act), Scorsese keeps things tense.
Though Damon and DiCaprio share almost no screen time together, Scorsese masterfully juxtaposes their scenes to play off one another. Their intertwined fates and inevitable collision are engrossing, blurring the lines of identity. Damon is the slick snake in the garden, charming us with clever banter and altarboy good looks. DiCaprio is the good cop, losing his soul little by little as he bloodies his hands with ever-darker crimes.
Amid the first-rate cast, DiCaprio is the unexpected standout. His third appearance in a Scorsese film is his best performance to date, capturing the tortured desperation of a man who fears he's reached the point of no return. His vulnerability, rage and paranoia are all well-earned, and DiCaprio never overplays his hand.
Damon's performance, on the other hand, is believable but hits only one note. There are glimmers here and there of something bubbling beneath his well-varnished surface, and Scorsese gives him lots of screen time, but we never really get close enough to peer inside.
Predictably, Nicholson steals nearly every scene he's in. There's no denying the electricity of his performance, but it's not the three-dimensional character some critics would have you believe. Except for About Schmidt, the actor hasn't adopted a flesh-and-blood persona in years, and his turn as Frank Costello is no exception. As an aging gangster who's achieved so much success there's no place to go except crazy, Nicholson tries to inject some heart and nobility into the madness but can't resist a few unhinged gestures and a drunken rat imitation. Scene by scene, Frank's insanity grows as his Boston accent slowly disappears.
The rest of the cast is terrific. Alec Baldwin is hilariously self-satisfied as a police unit commander, proving once again he's one of the best character actors around. Martin Sheen brings decency to his small police chief role (a part originally intended for Robert De Niro). Mark Wahlberg follows in Nicholson's scene-stealing footsteps as a savagely foul-mouthed detective, and Ray Winston oozes menace as Costello's second-in-command. As the film's sole female lead, Vera Farmiga salvages her contrived role a beautiful psychiatrist caught in an absurd romantic entanglement between Billy and Colin.
In Scorsese's moral universe, the divide between saint and sinner is slight, and The Departed makes clear which side the director is most comfortable with. Costello's criminal world seduces us with its instant camaraderie and brutal loyalties. But the world of the law, where Colin is forced to make his home, is depicted as a soulless collection of self-righteous cynics and foolish do-gooders. The message is clear: It's not the world that corrupts the man, but vice versa. As Costello states in the beginning of the film, "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.