by Ed Symkus & r & & r & The Departed & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he question has been kicking around for years. Will Martin Scorsese ever return to the filmmaking glory he once had claim to? Would there be another Casino, Goodfellas, Mean Streets? With the quadruple "threat" of the overbearing Kundun, the lackluster Bringing Out the Dead, the unfocused Gangs of New York, and the underachieving The Aviator, it didn't seem likely. Each of those films had fantastic sequences, but compared to many of his earlier works, they were weaker, less accomplished.
But back to that question, and the answer to it is "yes."
With The Departed, a loose remake of the little-seen 2002 Hong Kong film Mou gaan dou, Scorsese is sitting back among the top of the heap of American filmmakers. It is a compelling, thrilling, shocking movie that will hold audiences rapt. It runs for two and a half hours, but that time flies by, filled with intriguing character studies -- and no shortage of strong performances -- intricate plotting, and a gritty violence quotient that may repel some viewers, but will leave others -- core fans of Scorsese, who knows how to do violence -- applauding.
Set in contemporary Boston, home of one of the largest Irish populations outside of the land of shamrocks and shillelaghs, the film takes its time introducing the bad guys before bothering with any thoughts about good guys. Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is the local Irish mobster who's running everything from collections to cocaine. He's a nasty fellow with a bad temperament and an affinity for uttering racial epithets. But he's also a good businessman, always keeping an eye out for young recruits -- to whom he might offer some advice or a future career in crime.
Scorsese and veteran cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who's previously worked with the director on a half-dozen films) have placed Costello's face deep in shadow for the first 10 minutes or so, nicely establishing his shady personality.
And then there's the other side -- the hard-working members of the Massachusetts State Police. Among them there's the force's new golden boy, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and there's fresh cadet Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who's given some grief from the higher-ups because of his troubled family history.
What's eventually presented here is a classic good cop/bad cop story, but not in any way we've seen before (unless we've seen Mou gaan dou). Viewers are privy almost right away to the fact that Sullivan is one of those boys to whom Costello once made an offer, and that Costigan is given a choice: Infiltrate the Costello gang or forget about being a cop.
So starts a tangled web of two very different worlds -- what it's like to be a rat inside each of them, and what happens in those worlds when suspicions are raised, nerves go raw and desperation takes hold. Before long, cops are suspecting other cops and criminals are suspecting other criminals.
Yet even more than the tense, dangerous situations that are presented, everything in the film rests on the solid performances that Scorsese elicits from of his cast. Damon manages to convey an astounding amount of information in scenes where he doesn't even speak. From the way he sits and stares at the Massachusetts State House dome, we get that he has political ambitions. Mark Wahlberg, the tough-as-nails cop named Dignam, is on fire for most of his screen time, spewing out angry diatribes both in one-on-one situations and at groups of people. Nicholson's Costello is an animal, yet it's easy to accept him as a thug who apologizes to someone immediately after beating the bejesus out of him. The still-underrated DiCaprio absolutely proves he's got the goods in scenes where he and old pro Nicholson are trading lines.
The film often moves at a frenetic pace, jumping back and forth between cops at the precinct and mobsters at warehouses, their worlds perilously intertwined. If that isn't tangled enough storytelling, there's a side tale about a police psychiatrist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) and her personal and professional relationships with Sullivan and Costigan. Her initial meeting with Sullivan provides the film with one of its rare funny moments, though Alec Baldwin, as the high-ranking cop Ellerby, gets the script's best lines and sometimes approaches the status of comic relief.
But don't come to this film looking for laughs. And don't come to it if you want your punches pulled. If the generous dollops of violence aren't always onscreen, you can be sure that they're boiling up somewhere in the background. And the story's tragic element reaches Shakespearean proportions, along with irony to spare.
Two other positive notes: The eclectic rock soundtrack ("Gimme Shelter," "Sail On, Sailor," "Nobody but Me,") is the best since Scorsese filled Casino with music by Fleetwood Mac, Harry Nilsson, Jeff Beck and Tony Bennett. And for once, the actors -- well, at least Boston boys Wahlberg and Damon -- have got the Boston accent down pat.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Jack Nicholson, Matt Damen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg