Mixing it up with modern mobsters for the first time since “Casino” 11 years ago, Martin Scorsese cooks up a juicy and bloody steak of a movie in “The Departed.” Different from the director’s earlier crime dramas in its shared focus on cops rather than on just the goodfellas, this reworking of a popular Hong Kong picture pulses with energy, tangy dialogue and crackling performances from a fine cast, combining to give Warner Bros. a winning hand commercially in all markets.
After the elaborate exertions of the period pieces “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator,” it’s good to see Scorsese back on home turf, at least in a figurative sense, since the setting this time is Boston rather than New York. Not that he’s especially scaled down this time out; the complexity of the crises, formidable dramatis personae, hefty running time and long-arc drama make this a big picture. But the film intensely concentrates on conflict and character, thereby sweeping the viewer up in a tale of epic deceit in which nearly everyone is compromised and comes to no good.
From a plot point of view, “The Departed” closely follows its 2002 progenitor, “Infernal Affairs,” a big Asian hit and crime buff fave which, like its follow-up prequel and sequel, remained little seen in North America. Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”), who has stated he made a point of not watching the original film and worked only from a translation of the Chinese script, make the material their own by anchoring the story deeply in the Irish South Boston mob, in the milieu’s particular culture and societal attitudes.
For those who want reassurance Scorsese is re-embracing the “GoodFellas” aesthetic, it’s there right at the outset. With the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” setting the mood, an imposing man addresses a nice Irish kid at a working class soda fountain and presses money into the kid’s hand, enticing the boy into his circle.
Some years later, the older man comes into focus as crime kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), while the kid has grown into a rising star of the Massachusetts state police force, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) — long since placed on this path as a mole by Costello.
The police, repped by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his right arm, Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), long frustrated by their failure to nail Costello, carefully pick a candidate to infiltrate Costello’s inner circle. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a ballsy cadet who has had no advantages in life. They stick him in jail for a time to give him credentials that may pass Costello’s muster.
Thus are two shrewd, steely young men, unbeknownst to one another, placed within the same milieu with the same contacts but at dueling purposes. It’s a wonderful set-up for a pressurized, high-wire drama with ample psychological overtones, one that’s been impressively constructed like a trap and pays off with appropriate, bitter tragedy.
Along the way, there is plenty of room for tantalizing confrontations, consideration of human beings’ capacity for courage and corruption, and stylistic doodling. Of all the ingredients in the pot, the one that jumps out and grabs you is the language. Man, can Monahan write dialogue, and not just goombah threats and vulgarities, although he’s great with those. Wahlberg, playing his boss’s bad cop other half, delivers outrageously insulting tirades faster than Rodney Dangerfield could spit out self-deprecation and has half of the script’s best lines.
Most of the rest belong to Nicholson, whose old devil likes to crudely ruminate on sexual matters — he upbraids two priests and a nun in a restaurant for their would-be perversions — and is also capable of succinct philosophizing; when told by an associate that his mother is “on the way out,” Costello replies, “We all are. Act accordingly.”
But the heart of the film belongs in the conflicted, ambiguous middle between the outright criminal and the occasional righteous, uncorrupted cop. Sullivan, who is the picture of the savvy, red-blooded, sometimes less-than-principled Irish big-city cop, is able to shine at his job while still managing to tip his patron off to any threat. He puts engagingly brash moves on a shrink, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), who treats traumatized cops as well as criminals, and they soon become a couple.
But if, through lifelong preparation, Sullivan has largely learned to cope with his double life, for Costigan it’s a daily struggle. He passes Costello’s brutal are-you-a-cop tests with remarkable strength, and never cracks under the watchful eye of the boss’s untiringly suspicious enforcer, Mr. French (Ray Winstone). Costigan also enters Madolyn’s life, putting her at the intersection of an eventual showdown one imagines would send her to a shrink as well.
The propulsive movement and sweat-inducing situations inevitably recall “GoodFellas,” but the sensation here is somewhat different. The earlier film felt like it was on speed itself. “The Departed” has a exaggerated Grand Guignol quality to it, in the way it combines rock ‘n’ roll and opera on the soundtrack and in its accommodation of the play-acting at its core.
The heightened style may also be a way of making room for Nicholson’s performance, which is theatrical in a very entertaining way. At times he’s right on the money, conveying as convincingly as anyone could the attitudes of a tough old bastard who’s had things his own way all his life, while at other moments he flies off into an uncharted orbit for which the director tries to make room.
Operating a bit closer to terra firma, DiCaprio is outstanding as the audience’s main point of emotional contact, a man gravely at risk every moment of his life (one minor issue is an uncertainty over how much time the main action encompasses). In his third collaboration with Scorsese, DiCaprio has rarely been this vital, energized or passionate.
Damon delivers impressively as well. Thesp’s receding boyish qualities merge well with the role, just as a hint of his Jason Bourne hardness adds the necessary ruthless edge to the repellently interesting character.
Supporting cast is sparkling down the line, led by Wahlberg, who steals every base on the field and takes them home. Boston boys Damon and Wahlberg set the bar with their accents, while some of the interlopers, notably Nicholson, are in and out.
Craft contributions are superb. Michael Ballhaus’ widescreen lensing has a wonderful clarity to it and an unforced sense of composition, while Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing nimbly juggles the numerous characters and potentially confusing events without fuss. Kristi Zea’s production design, particularly the open look for the police h.q. and the modernism she brings out of old Boston, plays a major role in shaping the film’s character.