The Departed (18)

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 08 October 2006 00:00 BST

Martin Scorsese must be developing a pretty acid sense of irony these days. For years he's been toiling to make grand visionary statements (Kundun, Gangs of New York, The Aviator) and each time, the world and the Academy voters remain unimpressed. If only he'd go back to what he does best, they all moan: mean-mouthed street movies. Well, with The Departed, maybe he's decided to please the punters. Maybe part of him even sees it as throwing in the artistic towel. The Departed is just a cops and robbers thriller, and a remake at that, based on the hyper-slick Hong Kong trilogy Infernal Affairs. But wouldn't you know, it's getting the best reviews he's had in years and will no doubt clean up commercially. He must be jubilating through clenched teeth.

A couple of people warned me The Departed was a terrific thriller, but not really a Scorsese film. Are they kidding? Only Scorsese directs like this, and he's on his mettle, breathing easy now he's down from the rarefied heights. The crackling volleys of murderous backchat, the abrupt black humour, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, as crisp and loose as virtuoso bebop drumming: it's a Scorsese film, for sure. Mind you, given the genre material, The Departed is also the closest Scorsese has come to making a Michael Mann film.

Scorsese's interest in this story may have been sparked by its symmetry, the overdetermined neatness of its premise. A hood in the service of a criminal mastermind infiltrates the police to become a highly placed officer, while a cop goes undercover as a hood to break the rackets. As Jack Nicholson's gang lord Costello says here, "Cops, criminals - when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" In Infernal Affairs, the premise rather boils down to: when you've both got razor-sharp cheekbones and silk suits to match, what's the difference? The challenge in The Departed is to make something more expansive out of the material, and Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan go less for streamlined action than for Stygian moral comedy, and a payoff that's downright Jacobean.

Scorsese marks the territory as his own from the get-go, with the Stones on the soundtrack and Nicholson striding in as this panto's Demon King: a sneering, murderous farceur who rules Boston on both sides of the law. The story begins with him recruiting a wide-eyed Irish lad, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who graduates from police academy to be Costello's devoted lieutenant on the inside. Flip the mirror, and while Sullivan rises through the ranks to join a Special Investigations Unit (assigned to investigate himself, in other words), another young cop, brooding Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sent into deep cover by his superiors (Martin Sheen and a magnificently obnoxious Mark Wahlberg) to infiltrate Costello's gang.

On one side, Sullivan is becoming in police terms what Scorsese's mob movies call a "made man"; he's a pampered suit who pulls the world's strings from behind a desk. On the other, Costigan gives up his identity, goes round beating hapless goons for the sake of form, and cheerfully submits to Costello scrunching his wounded arm, to show goodwill. The counterpart anti-heroes are scrupulously kept out of each other's way throughout, but nearly collide in a tense pursuit sequence, stalking through the night in identical baseball caps. Their eventual face-off is relishably low-key: listening to each other's silence on blood-stained mobile phones.

A more awkward connection is that both men get involved with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a police psychiatrist. Farmiga, a-twitter in Annie Hall waistcoats, is easily the feeblest female presence in any Scorsese film (what happened to all those hard-nut dames: Cathy Moriarty, Sharon Stone, Liza Minnelli?), and both men's scenes with her slow the film down badly.

But any woman would seem out of place in what is easily Scorsese's most unabashedly macho work, not just in its violence (not that graphic, mostly, but calculated to make you squirm) but also in its locker-room talk. Language is the primary weapon here: throughout, men compare dick size by trading insults (Damon, playing in a cops vs firemen ball game: "Go save a kitten in a tree, you fucking homos.")

Ultimately, the story is about young men anxious to impress father figures, whether it's Costello or Sheen's boss cop. And you'll go to The Departed, in no small part, to enjoy the maleness of the performances: the nastiness of Damon's character comes from the actor's clean-cut, cocky blandness; DiCaprio is for the first time convincingly thuggish and, especially when photographed from below by Michael Ballhaus, breathtakingly rodent-like. And Nicholson - well, if you like Jack, you get a lot of Jack here, in all his decaying, jowly grandeur.

The Departed gives about as good publicity to the Boston Irish as Borat does to Kazakhstan, but Scorsese's Italian-American critics are probably enjoying the break. If you like Scorsese, or if you just like thrillers, you'll have a good time. Oh, and his next film, I believe, is about Jesuits in 17th-century Japan, so you might want to enjoy it while you can.

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