Watching (and subsequently reviewing) the latest work of a cinematic legend like Martin Scorsese, one is faced with a dilemma; does one view the work in absolute terms, perhaps simply comparing against the genre and the contemporary films, or should it be judged against the high standards of the artist’s oeuvre? My personal take has usually been the latter. But after the disappointment with the gaudiness of The Aviator, I wanted to avoid the pit-falls of such high expectations. This time I completely ignored the pre-release publicity of The Departed, hoping to watch the film without bias. Still it was difficult to think of it in isolation and I have to admit that the feeling I came out of the theater was that while much better than his last feature, Scorsese’s latest matched neither the psychological intensity of Taxi Driver or the sweeping drama of Goodfellas (or even Casino for that matter), a film about crime and criminals that will draw inevitable comparisons.
Nevertheless, one cannot blame a director for his past greatness and I should quickly add that The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong cop-flick Internal Affairs, is certainly a very entertaining, action-packed, hard-boiled crime drama.
Not to sound like a 70s Bollywood movie trailer, but the film has it all – edge of the seat excitement, suspense, thrills, incredible fight sequences, some tremendous acting (with an exception, see below), taut and witty dialogues, a sexy heroine and importantly, an edgy soundtrack1 to go along with the high-octane action. Where is falls shorts of expectations is the ending, which was underwhelming to say the least – with the final scene being downright ‘cheesy’ (the quotes will be obvious for those who have seen the film). Also, there are a few plot holes and coincidences that are a bit too convenient.
The fast paced story shows the parallel lives of two characters, Billy Costigan (Leo Di Caprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), both hailing from the largely Irish-American South Boston neighborhood – also the heart of Irish Mafia activities – and both recent graduates of the State Police Academy. Billy’s background and links with elements of the Irish criminals makes him an ideal candidate to go deep undercover and secretly infiltrate the crime syndicate of Frank Costello, the Irish mob-boss, played by Jack Nicholson with enough cold hearted, ruthless menace to make a Quentin Tarantino villain look positively angelic in comparison (Among others, he kills a woman and says "She fell funny").
Colin Sullivan meanwhile (as you might have already guessed) is Costello’s inside man, having grown up under the latter’s auspices and training. Placed within the police with much foresight to provide tip-offs, Colin uses his suaveness and smart gab to rise up the ranks and become a member of the Special Investigation Unit assembled to nab Costello. Beyond his obvious allegiance to Costello, however, lurks an independent ambition (expressed brilliantly, IMO, through a pithy scene where he talks to a real estate agent about buying an upscale apartment overlooking the state capitol building).
Once this basic premise is set-up, much of the latter part of the film involves tense stand-off, with the police attempts to nab Costello being deftly thwarted by Sullivan and the respective moles trying to uncover each other. In several juxtaposed but tightly edited scenes, the film flips back and forth between the two protagonists. Predictably, as the film rolls on, there is a blurring of moral boundaries; as Costello says :"……they would say you could become cops or criminals. What I’m saying is this: When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference? ". Interspersed within the hard-hitting violence, however, are cleverly placed scenes of droll humor and witty satire (a police chief during a surveillance, cries out with the glee of child in a candy store, "Patriot act …Patriot act……I love it !!").
The support cast is as expected, quite excellent: Alec Baldwin as a slick detective chief concerned as much with catching the bad guys as his own status, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, playing the good-cop/bad-cop duo in charge of running Billy Costigan and keeping him a secret from the rest of the police department, Ray Winstone as Costello’s trusted deputy and butcher-in-chief. The only jarring note in my opinion was struck by relative newcomer Vera Farmiga, who plays the role of a psychoanalyst employed with the police. In a one of the convenient coincidences I mentioned earlier, both Billy and Colin manage to fall in love with her, albeit in different ways in keeping with their characters (Billy’s is more of raw emotion and vulnerability while for Colin, you will get the feeling it is a part of a calculate move for rising up in the world). While her chiseled angelic features and ultra-expressive eyes, she’ll take your breath away for most parts, but somehow her role does not blend in with the rest of the narrative.
In the final analysis, this is obviously a film you won’t want to miss. I haven’t been to the theatres a lot recently, so there isn’t much basis to compare it with the year’s output, but if the internet buzz is to be trusted, it is certainly one of the best (with the so-called ‘Oscar season’ of releases coming up – expect a whole lot of similar meaningful, award-contender quality films to crop up in the theatres right about now). But to get back to where I started, the film isn’t a notch on Goodfellas. Apart from the obvious difference in milieu and perhaps genres, Scorsese was working with a richer tapestry in Goodfellas, and with its laid-back narrative, brought out an aura of the mob-culture, which I enjoyed more than the throbbing action of The Departed.
1: Two tracks stood out during the movie. First was "Comfortably Numb" – the version sung by Van Morrison during Roger Water’s 1990 staging of The Wall in Berlin. Second was rock number I hadn’t heard before with a catchy bagpipe in accompaniment – an google search revealed it as "I am Shipping off to Boston", an original Woody Guthrie number covered by the band punk band Dropkick Murphys. I listened to some sample’s of the band’s numbers and liked what I heard. The band, according to their website, wants to "blend the musical influences we had grown up with (Punk Rock, Irish Folk, Rock, and Hardcore) into one loud, raucous, chaotic, and often out of tune mix that we could call our own" .