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 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 a gripping and inevitable confrontation.
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, it goes almost without saying that everything he does is worth seeing. The Departed never reaches the heights of his best work, but then his best work represents some of the greatest films in the history of cinema.
Marty is helped by film editor Thelma Schoonmaker who won an Oscar for her work on Raging Bull. She's not lost her touch when it comes to the rapid cuts, making the fight sequences painfully realistic and frightening.
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 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 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 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. Leo's just trying too hard.
Jack Nicholson is on top form 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's 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. If not, you'll be carried along by it and thoroughly entertained by Scorsese’s lively direction.
If the Chinese directors made the better film they'd be the first to admit that Scorsese showed them the way.
We still await the great Scorsese film for this decade. Robert De Niro, clear your diary.
The first thing to be noted about this disappointing special features package is the lack of talk track from Scorsese, particularly as he is the much fancied favourite for this year’s Best Director gong at the Oscars (after seven previously unsuccessful nominations!).
Marty does, however, provide commentary on nine deleted scenes which give greater depth to Damon and DiCaprio’s characters but were left out as they didn’t fit into the structure of the film. There’s more from Scorsese in the featurette “Crossing Criminal Cultures” which explains how Little Italy’s crime and violence influenced him in his formative years, and the effect it has had on his work as a director.
Sadly, there is no contribution from Nicholson – as always seems to be the case – but there is an interesting piece on Whitey Bulger, the real life gangster that his character was based on. Expect a “Special Edition” later in the year, especially after Scorsese’s Academy Award triumph next weekend.
Scorsese can still mix it with the best directors around though and this movie is certainly full of goodies for the fan boys. The vintage moment comes when the two moles nearly meet in a street sequence. Shadows, ambient sound effects and rapid cutting remind us that he's one of the masters of the art – one of Hitchcock’s heirs.
But anyone who's 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, on the other hand, often draws our attention to clues with clunking clumsiness and defines his characters with very broad strokes.
Staring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Extras: Additional scenes with introductions by Martin Scorsese, Feature-length TCM profile "Scorsese on Scorsese", The Story of the Boston Mob: the real-life gangster behind Jack Nicholson's character, Crossing Criminal Cultures: how Little Italy's crime and violence influence Scorsese's work