Departed, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Departed is a perfect example of why remakes shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan have taken the B-grade Hong Kong crime flick Infernal Affairs and re-imagined it as an American epic tragedy. The original film was gritty and entertaining; the new version is a masterpiece - the best effort Scorsese has brought to the screen since Goodfellas (ending a decade-long drought of disappointments and near-misses). In making The Departed, Scorsese has retained the essential plot structure of Infernal Affairs but has transformed the movie into something truly his own. Characters are better defined and situations are given an opportunity to breathe. None of this is done at the cost of pacing; The Departed is as suspenseful as anything the director has previously achieved. This movie deserves mention alongside Scorsese's most celebrated movies: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Age of Innocence.

Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) both start out life on the streets of Boston's Irish American community, which is presided over by gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). From there, their paths diverge. After a rough youth, Costigan enrolls in the police academy with the goal of becoming a state trooper. Sullivan also becomes a cop, but for a different reason - he's Costello's right-hand man and will provide him with valuable inside information. Meanwhile, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) have hand-picked Costigan for a crucial job: infiltrate Costello's inner circle. It's a role he accepts and succeeds at, although not without difficulty. Thus begins a high-stakes game, with Costigan sending back information to the cops about Costello's plans while Sullivan counters by leaking police intelligence to his boss. Both moles know there are leaks, but neither is aware of the truth about the other's position.

On-screen talent pools don't get much deeper than this one, with A-list actors like Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Alec Baldwin accepting supporting roles. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon prove two crucial things: they are not interchangeable and, when pushed by someone who can direct actors, they can give riveting performances. DiCaprio has displayed growth in each of his appearances for Scorsese, and this is by far the best work he has done in his career. Jack Nicholson is in top form, providing a diabolical villain who can deliver a monologue with unparalleled verve. His part is showy enough that it will be virtually impossible for him to be ignored at Oscar time. Up-and-coming actress Vera Farmiga and British tough guy Ray Winstone round out a cast that, if not perfect, is close to it.

The consistent levels of intrigue and tension are among The Departed's high points. Scorsese draws viewers in with a captivating monologue delivered by Nicholson at a time in the past (the date is not specified, but it is presumably the early 1980s), which includes the most memorable two lines in Monahan's screenplay: "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me." After this quick introduction, the scene shifts to the present. It takes a little while for the ins-and-outs of the setup to become clear, but once the sides are established and the cat-and-mouse games begin, the suspense begins to slowly simmer. Even knowing what was coming (from having seen Infernal Affairs), I remained on the edge of my seat. Unlike many remakes, this one feels fresh, not recycled.

The two characters to profit most from this re-envisioning are Costello, whose role has been expanded to provide Nicholson with more screen time. It's understandable - few actors can add more color to a bad guy than Nicholson, and he relishes every moment in front of the camera. Unlike in Batman, where he chewed the scenery, he avoids going over-the-top, and this makes Costello as frightening as he is magnetic. As Madeleine, a woman caught between Costigan and Sullivan, Vera Farmiga also benefits. Until now, the actress has largely flown under the radar (despite a significant role in the box office dud Running Scared), but this should be an opportunity for her to garner some notice. (Had Robert De Niro played Queenan, as was originally intended, no doubt the Captain's role would have been enlarged. However, when De Niro became unavailable due to scheduling conflicts, Martin Sheen was brought in.)

Thematically, The Departed fits well with the director's oeuvre. The movie concentrates on family and betrayal, and what constitute both. The lead characters are loners, but they are linked to the world of Boston gangsters by blood ties. Each also commits at least one betrayal, but the question becomes "Who are they betraying?" It's not as easy to answer as one might suspect. In the murky waters of double agents, moles, and rats, loyalty isn't a facile commodity to gauge. Every character ultimately earns his or her fate, except perhaps one.

Two technical hallmarks of Scorsese's films are in evidence. Michael Ballhaus' cinematography is intense and moody. Even though a significant portion of the movie was shot in New York City, the feel is "all Boston." Howard Shore provides the score, but the most notable aspect of the soundtrack is the near-perfect song selection. For the third time in his career, Scorsese uses the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" (see also Goodfellas and Casino). He also employs a cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" during a key sequence.

Since this is a gangster film, there's plenty of bloodletting and profanity, although one could argue that The Departed is tame compared to some of what Scorsese has given us in the past. Nevertheless, seeing the respected director back at the top of his game with a movie that could be both commercially and critically successful is a source of jubilation. The movies have been in the doldrums lately; The Departed is a much needed tonic. It's also one of 2006's best features.

Departed, The (United States, 2006)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2006
Ranked #87 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:29
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1