Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Departed / **** (R)

Billy Costigan: Leonardo DiCaprio
Colin Sullivan: Matt Damon
Frank Costello: Jack Nicholson
Oliver Queenan: Martin Sheen
Madolyn: Vera Farminga
Dignam: Mark Wahlberg
Mr. French: Ray Winstone
Ellerby: Alec Baldwin

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by William Monahan, based on the screenplay “Wu jian dao” by Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong. Running time: 152 min. Rated R (for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material).

Rats. There is a picture drawn by the character played by Jack Nicholson which depicts hundreds of rats flooding toward a Boston cathedral where one of the main characters grew up. It seems like a small, almost strange gesture that such a man as this should draw such a figurative description of something that the film itself is about, but I liked it. So much of the rest of “The Departed” is such a visceral expression of the violent environment the characters herein have chosen for themselves that an expression of “art”, like this drawing, is a reminder that a director like Martin Scorsese does not produce films that are merely about their surface elements.

“The Departed” is actually a remake of the Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”. I am glad to say I have seen both films, if only because I have witnessed how two great directors can interpret the exact same material with such distinctively different visions. “Infernal Affairs” takes a look at a common them among Asian crime pictures, that of the dual relationship between criminal and policeman. It is a fluid and visually pretty film that plays like a dance between the two main characters.

Martin Scorsese’s vision is gritty and harsh, something akin to passing a kidney stone. There is a flavor of his earlier gangster films, “Goodfellas”, “Mean Streets”, and “Casino”. But the daily crime routine of the gangsters here is presented as if it has become merely a second nature to Scorsese, not as important as the plot or characters.

The story follows a cop and a criminal. Colin Sullivan has been groomed by Irish crime kingpin Frank Costello to be a plant in the Massachusetts State Police, while Billy Costigan, who attended the police academy at about the same time as Sullivan, has been hand picked by Captain Oliver Queenan to become a deep undercover operative in Costello’s crime organization. Sullivan has been an exemplary trainee and quickly moves up in the police ranks to become a State Trooper Detective; while Costigan has lived a life of lies and deception, making him the perfect candidate to infiltrate Costello’s organization to a point where he can get close to the man himself. Then each is given the task of smoking out the “rat” in each of their home organizations.

Scorsese is attracted to stories about rats, whistle blowers and betrayal of trust, and the prices paid for such actions. His “Goodfellas”, about a real-life mob informant who was placed into the Federal Witness Protection Program after rolling over on his life long buddies and ambitions, is the most obvious example. But it is a theme that can be seen his films as wide ranging as , “Gangs of New York”, “Cape Fear”, “Raging Bull”, and “The Age of Innocence”. “The Departed” is perhaps the film that deals with the direct effects of living these lives of deception in the coldest, harshest personal fashion.

Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Aviator”) is once again at the top of his form as the anguished Costigan. He brings an element of fear to his role as a mole that is often missing from such performances. Usually the good mole is someone who is played with confidence and nobility, but Costigan realizes he is in over his head even if it is his job to pretend that could never be so.

Matt Damon (“Oceans Twelve”), however, eschews his good boy image as Sullivan. He does a good job utilizing his natural charm as the promotion grubbing detective, but gives it all detached feel that makes his deception that much more devious. His deception is much more confident than Costigan’s as he seems to enjoy the benefits of the “normal” life while still working for the bad guys.

The shared dual nature of these character’s personalities is literalized in each man’s relationship with state psychiatrist Madolyn Mason (Vera Farminga, “Running Scared”), who acts as Costigan’s parole shrink and is wooed by Sullivan in an elevator. The melodrama potential runs high when both Costigan and Sullivan develop personal relationships with her, an element that is played up for its melodramatic effect in the original Chinese film, but Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) use this story thread more to juxtapose Sullivan’s comfort with his deception versus Costigan’s need for something separated from his false life.

While DiCaprio provides the standout performance of the film, it also contains a number of impressive supporting performances. Jack Nicholson (“Something’s Gotta Give”) brings everything Jack to his role as crime kingpin Frank Costello, which he claims to have agreed to because it had been a while since he had played an evil character. Martin Sheen (NBC’s “The West Wing”) acts as the anchoring element as Costigan’s superior, Queenan. And Alec Baldwin (NBC’s “30 Rock”) steals every scene he is in as the enthusiastic Special Investigations Unit Captain Ellerby, “Patriot Act! Patriot Act! I love the Patriot Act!”

What Scorsese proves with “The Departed” -- besides that he is one of the few seventies filmmakers that is still a master artist -- is that a good story has such richness to it, it can be told by two different filmmakers who can each bring their own singular definitive vision to it. He also proves there is no one else in the business with such a relaxed ease for crime drama and such an intimate understanding of the psychology of the rat.

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