Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
Many are hailing this tautly woven Bostonian crime drama as a return to form by filmmaker Martin Scorsese. I tend to disagree that he ever lost it, for even his so-called lesser films of the last decade or so (Bringing Out the Dead and The Age of Innocence spring to mind) are titles I am proud to own. And as much as Gangs of New York was considered a misfire, my love for that film has only grown stronger over the years since its release. I even like it more than The Aviator, but hey, I'm a crazy guy.
The Departed should actually be called The Depahted, since the titular slogan for dead folk is inseparable from a Boston accent in this film. Real Southie actors Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg are in their element here, and are joined by a wonderful cast of non-Bostonians including Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorcese's new Deniro), Alec Baldwin, Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen. Nicholson in particular lets his accent come and go, but his mobster Frank Costello is a deliciously amoral fellow who revels in chewing up the scenery. I'm usually not much of a Nicholson fan (he pretty much plays himself most of the time), but apart from one bit of typical annoying behavior (his over the top impression of a rodent) he actually impressed me throughout.
The real meat of the story is in the dualities of DiCaprio and Damon's characters. The former is a good cop with familial ties to crime who is treated like dirt by his superiors (Wahlberg and Martin Sheen), whereas Damon is Colin Sullivan, a Costello plant posing as a cop who is treated like blueblood royalty. One feels for DiCaprio's Billy Costigan as he is perpetually battered by circumstance (and one nasty test in which his broken hand is broken for him anew) without an ounce of respect from his peers. He might as well turn to a life of crime, but his moral center keeps him coming back for more punishment in the belief that he will do some good in the long run.
Damon's Sullivan is the guy you love to hate, the world at his fingertips and a perpetual shit-eating grin on his mug. Thankfully, his luck starts to turn around on him as the film progresses. An interesting subplot also arises in which both characters bed the same blond psychiatrist, further cementing their status as two sides of the same coin. I can't recall the last time this sort of rivalry was captured with such richness outside of Hong Kong cinema.
Which is where this film has its roots, as it is a remake of Infernal Affairs, a wildly popular film that spawned a mass of sequels. The choice to adapt the story to a tale inspired by a real Boston criminal was fortuitous, and the change fits the original concept like a glove. Sadly, this is the kind of film John Woo should be making in America, since this is exactly the kind of stuff he was working with back in Hong Kong. And despite the change of scenery and dialect, The Departed still manages to feel like an HK drama. Those films are often rife with characters who must endure untold hardships in the name of honor, or showing 'face' to their superiors (either legal or criminal).The brightest and simplest moment of William Monahan's script is when he turns our assumptions about what mob bosses should be on their ear and develops a delightful surprise. The violence in the film is just as brutal as any Scorcese flick of yore, and the body count keeps growing as the story unravels. Though for all of its crimson indulgences, it's not a very heavy affair, and the playful script sustains a certain level of whimsy throughout. Though there are grim fates for many of the characters, the ending still left me grinning, wanting to jump up and yell "Yeah!" Overall, it's a fascinating look into the meaning of what it is to be a rat within a morass of a world in which everyone is a rat of sorts.