Departed (Theatrical Film Review)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark
Wahlberg, Martin Sheen
Director: Martin Scorsese
Critic's rating: 7 out of 10
Review by Chuck O'Leary
In September of 1990, director Phil Joanou's Irish-gangster
drama State of Grace
had the misfortune of opening in limited release just one week prior to Martin
opening in wide release. Both were excellent -- GoodFellas was my choice for the
best film of 1990 and State of Grace my
choice for second best -- but GoodFellas
(reviewed on HD-DVD elsewhere on this site) got a lot more promotion from
Warner Bros. than State of Grace
(also reviewed on this site) received from an Orion Pictures that had
hit financial problems.
Sixteen years later, Scorsese enters State of Grace territory with The Departed, a reworking of the
2002 Hong Kong film, Infernal
Having already directed three landmark films in the gangster genre
about the Italian Mafia, all starring Robert De Niro (Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino), Scorsese has long been the reigning king of underworld
dramas, but The Departed
is noteworthy for being his first film to deal with the modern-day Irish mob
and his first film to star another legend borne out of the 1970s, Jack Nicholson.
Scorsese and Nicholson finally working together is one of the
biggest events of the film year. Unfortunately, their belated
collaboration doesn't come close to the greatness of Scorsese's GoodFellas and Casino, and pales in comparison to
Joanou's State of Grace.
While The Departed is
no doubt a good film, it's easily Scorsese's least satisfying foray into the
gangster genre to date.
Here's possibly why: The screenplays for GoodFellas and Casino were both written by
Nicholas Pileggi, adapted from his own novels, both of which were
based on true stories. Both of those films were
meticulously researched, fascinating in their detail and felt real. The Departed, on the other hand, is
based on a Hong Kong film that has been Americanized by screenwriter William
Monahan, whose only previous script was for Ridley's Scott's awful Kingdom of Heaven. Monahan is
clearly no Pileggi when it comes to writing mob movies and the pedigree of
material here seems a lot more "B" in nature.
Scorsese is such a fine filmmaker that it's really a credit to his
enormous cinematic know-how that The Departed works to the degree it does. In
this case he's working with source material that's a big comedown for
him. While seldom less than totally engrossing, the film gets caught up
in the kind of plot mechanics and contrivances that feel like they're out of
any standard B thriller. And this material is much less interesting on a
thematic level than we've become accustomed to with Scorsese. While The Departed works on the level of
a twisty B potboiler, we've come to expect more from America's
foremost auteur -- Scorsese's latest actually has more in common
with the recent mob thriller 10th
& Wolf than his previous underworld sagas.
Also, without the narration that was such a key component to GoodFellas and Casino, The Departed often feels somewhat
unfocused with its many characters and numerous subplots. The
narration in GoodFellas
helped define characters and explain motivation in the midst of a busy
story. Here we get the same kind of busy story without those insightful
Scorsese again utilizes his technique in mob movies of playing
rock music underneath scenes, but some of the modern music he uses in The Departed simply isn't any good,
and a couple tunes by the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack
are the same ones he used in earlier films.
Set in South Boston, often called "Southie," The Departed is about a clash
between factions of Irish gangsters and mostly Irish cops. In his
most villainous role in years, which he portrays with scene-stealing demonic
glee, Nicholson plays Frank Costello, an Irish mob boss prone to fits of
violence and perversion. From what's more implied than actually shown,
Costello becomes the surrogate father of a little boy being raised by his
grandmother named Colin Sullivan. Costello's generosity
toward Sullivan growing up is supposed to be repaid with inside
information once Sullivan (Matt Damon) joins the police department -- that
nobody on the entire Boston police force would know of Sullivan's
relationship to Costello going back to childhood and be able to put two &
two together is impossible to swallow.
Another kid from Southie is Billy Costigan (Leonardo
DiCaprio), who comes from a family with many ties to the local Irish mob.
But instead of becoming a crook, Costigan decides to become a cop.
The special investigations unit of the department determines Costigan will
be of most use if he feigns getting tossed from the police academy to the
outside world while becoming an undercover informant for them. Under the
command of two special investigations cops, Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam
(Mark Wahlberg), Costigan is sent to infiltrate Costello's gang and gather
enough information to bring Costello down. But Costigan will have to
prove himself a dangerous character to gain the trust of Costello.
So what we have here is the dichotomy of two young men of Irish
ancestry leading double lives on opposite sides of the law. That
part is interesting, but The Departed
eventually steps too far into the world of well-worn movie conventions
once Sullivan and Costigan begin sleeping with the same woman, a police
psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga). The subplot of Farmiga with Damon
and DiCaprio always feels manufactured and remains the film's weakest link.
Instead of wasting time on a hackneyed love triangle, the film
would have been better off delving more into the lives of guys
in Costello's crew such as the feared Mr. French (Ray Winstone) and Fitz (David
O'Hara), and cops like the ones played by Sheen and Wahlberg.
By its final reel, The
Departed degenerates into a series of mechanical plot
twists that increasingly strain credibility with each double-cross.
From the big of budget to the low of budget, so much incompetently-made garbage
gets produced and distributed nowadays that The Departed is solid in comparison to most films of
2006. It's just that with this cast and this director you'd hope for
a more serious exploration of real Irish cops and real
Irish gangsters than the exercise in B-movie plot mechanics this
It's practically a sin that Scorsese has yet to win a Best
Director Oscar. Ironically, if he finally wins one for The Departed it will be for what is
far from his best work.