Martin Scorcese’s latest film is a striking return to form even if it never quite scales the lofty heights of his very best work.
A cinematic legend like Martin Scorcese has an unusual problem when he directs a new film. He knows it will be compared to some of the most admired work in recent cinema history. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas are all certifiable classics that have influenced a generation of film makers and still resonate to this day.
Despite a large number of critics drooling over it in the US, The Departed (a reworking of the brilliant 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs) is not quite up to those exalted standards. But nonetheless it is his best work in many years and recaptures the raw energy and passion that was lacking in recent films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator.
Despite being re-written by screenwriter William Monahan, the plot is fairly faithful to the Asian original even though it is now set in Boston. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy, an undercover cop who is asked by his superiors (Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) to infiltrate an Irish crime gang led by the ruthless Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).
In the Boston police department Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is an ambitious cop investigating Costello’s gang but is actually a secret informer for him. As each side tries to outwit one another both moles realise that they could be uncovered at any time and the tension starts to rise. The first and most striking aspect of The Departed is the raw energy of the script and performances.
It is an energy that was distinctly lacking in his recent films. Whilst Gangs of New York and The Aviator had their technical merits they lacked the exuberance that characterises much of Scorcese’s best work. Aided by Monahan’s dialogue that allows for a lot of sly humour amidst the tension and violence, Scorcese recovers the gritty urban vitality of films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.
It is more of a procedural police thriller than those films but it still filled with themes he has explored before. Guilt, betrayal and violence are all issues that have cropped up in his films and at times The Departed is overflowing with them. Plus, the use of music (such as the Rolling Stones) in certain sequences harks back to memorable moments in his output. Added to all this is a truly exceptional cast in which nearly all the main actors fit snugly into their roles.
DiCaprio and Damon do solid work in each of their sections (like De Niro and Pacino in Heat they actually have very little screen time together) and manage to convey the kind of mature weariness that they haven’t been able to explore in a lot of their roles to date. Jack Nicholson eats up a lot of scenery as the gang boss and his flashes of dark wit are entertaining but his character is slight less menacing than he might have been.
In the supporting cast Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen exude different kinds of authority as members of the police department and give solid performances. But it is Mark Wahlberg with a terrific turn as Sheen’s aggressive and foul mouthed partner who really steals the show. But despite all that is good in The Departed I have to confess that I spent much of it thinking about Infernal Affairs.
It is a remake (or reworking) of that film and although Scorcese has brought a lot to this adaptation it lacks the urgency and clockwork tension of the original. There are some changes that work and some that don’t but the original has a narrative grip that this film doesn’t match.
To be fair to Scorcese, perhaps he wanted to explore and adapt different themes – at one point a cop screams “Patriot Act, baby!” when stakeout is under way. It does seem to be making the point that in modern America the methods used by law enforcers are growing ever closer to those adopted by criminals but thematically it lacks the social bite that was a hallmark of say Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.
One plot strand involving a police psychologist (Vera Farmiga) and her relationship with the two leads is not only unconvincing but compares unfavourably to the Asian film by conflating two characters in to one. It not only stretches credibility but doesn’t really add anything to the narrative other than give a loose coincidental connection to Damon and DiCaprio’s characters.
Although the work of Scorcese’s usual cinematographer Michael Balhaus is always good to look at it doesn’t quite have the same flair and invention of the original. This is apparent late on in a key sequence and is surprising given the high standards he has set himself. Despite all these caveats though, The Departed is still one of the most enjoyable thrillers in recent memory and whilst it doesn’t break new ground for the legendary director at its helm, his return to form is more than enough for now.