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Category:    Home > Reviews > Gangster > Thriller > The Departed (Theatrical Film Review)

The 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 Scorsese's GoodFellas 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 Affairs.


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 and Casino 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 character asides.


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 eventually becomes.


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.


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