So is this Scorsese’s great film for this decade? It has most of the ingredients of his finest work – the violent world of gangsters, cops, and assorted American low life on that narrow line that separates the good guys from the bad ones.
Adapted from the brilliant Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (2002) directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, The Departed is a police/underworld thriller in the best Scorsese tradition. The action is moved to Boston where two young men (Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon) are living a lie as undercover agents – one is a cop planted in a criminal gang run by the larger than life mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and the other is a gangster working as a cop. The complex plot, riddled with coincidences and gore, unravels as the two get closer and closer to each other before an exciting and inevitable confrontation.
New York Times: “Mr. Scorsese is back on the mean streets where he belongs.”
Rolling Stone: “A new American crime classic from the legendary Martin Scorsese, whose talent shines here on its highest beam.”
We have been waiting for a great Scorsese film since Casino in 1995 so The Departed has been much anticipated. Martin Scorsese, without doubt, one of America’s finest directors, has made at least one great film every decade since Taxi Driver in 1976 – Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990) and then, of course, the brilliant Casino (1995). Robert De Niro starred in all of them and was due to appear in this movie too (in Martin Sheen’s role) but, sadly for all admirers of the de Niro/Scorsese partnership had to withdraw at the last minute.
So is The Departed the great film we’ve been hoping for after a run of not exactly vintage movies from the great man?
Well, everything he does is worth seeing and the new movie has some great things in it without ever reaching the heights of his best work but then his best work represents some of the greatest films in the history of cinema and The Departed is definitely not in that league.
He can still compete with the best directors around though and this movie is certainly full of goodies for his fans. The vintage moment coming when the two moles nearly meet in a street sequence where shadows, ambient sound effects and rapid cutting remind us that he is one of the masters of the art – one of Hitchcock’s heirs.
He is helped by film editor Thelma Schoonmaker who won an Oscar for her work on Raging Bull. She has not lost her touch when it comes to the rapid cuts, which make the fight sequences painfully realistic and frightening.
Elsewhere though, anyone who has seen Infernal Affairs will miss the subtle ambiguities of the Hong Kong original. The Chinese directors leave small details to speak for themselves and allow the two central characters to grow emotionally and ethically through the film without having to spell things out. Scorsese often draws our attention to clues with clunking clumsiness and defines his characters with with very broad strokes.
The two main characters in Infernal Affairs (played by Andy Lau and Tony Leung) are much more moving in their mutual dilemma than Scorsese’s more black and white performances. Lau and Leung are both victims, trapped in their double lives and frightened by the human cost of their deception.
Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are certainly impressive and have done nothing better in their careers but their characterisation is altogether simpler than their Chinese models. They are opposites not the ill-fated twins of the original.
Damon struggles to show his vulnerability and is barely likeable as the mole in the Boston police force. Never quite as human as Guy Pearce’s buttoned-up cop in LA Confidential, his best moments are when his baby-face reveals his cold, raw ambition.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Damon’s exact opposite – maybe too nice and vulnerable to be believable as the tough kid from the wrong side of the street. His performance remains on a tearfully anxious level throughout the film and he throws himself into putting on a performance just a bit too obviously.
There is a classic performance though from Jack Nicholson as the monstrous gang leader Frank Costello. Complete with the trademark grin, Nicholson plays him as a showman whose humour covers his cynical ruthlessness. More than just a pantomime villain, Nicholson succeeds in bringing across Costello’s frustration at his growing immunity to his own sadistic thrill seeking. He is a man looking for the ultimate, unspeakable kick but fears that the world is not quite exciting enough to supply it.
If you’ve seen Infernal Affairs then the complex plot will have no mysteries for you but if not you will be carried along by it and thoroughly entertained by Scorsese’s lively direction.
If the Chinese directors have made the better film then they would be the first to admit that they would never have done so without the example of Martin Scorsese’s greatest films as their model.
We still await the great Scorsese film for this decade however……Robert De Niro, clear your diary.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winston, Alec Baldwin