If F-words were horses, Martin Scorcese’s The Departed would be a stampede. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Scorcese film without an intensive barrage of R-rated language and this is a prime example of the director in his natural environment, among cops and wise guys and navigating a morally ambiguous urban landscape.
Scorcese has spent the last decade away from his natural milieu, possibly pursuing a level of artsy respectability that would earn him that long denied Best Director Oscar. That makes it someone ironic that he finally won the award with a lurid, violent but insightful crime film that played to his strengths.
This film is technically a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong action film entitled Infernal Affairs, but The Departed feels so specifically American that you never get a sense of its pulpy Asian roots.
Set among the Irish of south Boston, The Departed tracks the careers of two young cops, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they join the Massachusetts State Police (the “Staties”). Colin seems like the perfect All-American boy but has a long-established “understanding” with a local mobster named Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). For his part, Billy has a rather checkered family history that makes him ideal to be recruited into infiltrating Costello’s outfit. His handlers, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his vulgar but loyal Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), put him deep undercover as he is officially thrown off the force and sent to prison. No one, not even the Organized Crime unit run by Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), knows of his existence. But when Colin is recruited to Ellerby’s team, he learns that Costello’s crew has a police informer on the inside. For his part, Billy quickly discovers that Costello has his own source within the Staties.
In the meantime, Colin begins dating a police psychologist (Vera Farmiga) who also counsels paroled criminals, including Billy Costigan. This gets inevitably dicey when she starts falling in love with both of them.
In lesser hands, a story like this could easily be hackneyed and clichéd, but Scorcese is able to imbue his two leads with rich characterizations. Both Colin and Billy are sympathetic but deeply flawed. Despite his loyalty to Costello, Colin is also a good cop most of the time and we, the audience, find ourselves rooting for him to evade the police attempts to locate the mole in their midst. On the other hand, Billy is on the side of angels, but his quick, violent temper and eventual pill popping sorely test our sympathy for his plight.
Despite being occasionally dismissed as Gen-X pretty boys, both DiCaprio and Damon comfortably inhabit the center of this store, surrounded as they are by some heavy hitting talent in supporting roles. The younger stars occupy the same screen with Sheen, Baldwin and Nicholson without flinching and easily bring the necessary “stuff” to their performances.
Of course, having Jack Nicholson playing a somewhat flamboyant Irish mobster can be an invitation to one of those patented over-the-top performances that have marred the later years of the actor’s career, but Scorcese is able to reel him in just enough to keep him real. Ellerby’s expansive vulgarity makes him the most vividly memorable character Alec Baldwin has played since Glengarry Glen Ross. Only Martin Sheen gets short shrift and only because his character is somewhat underwritten. He’s mostly here to keep a hand on Dignam’s leash.
A movie like this is always promising to descend into a bloodbath of betrayal and counter-betrayal and, in the end, The Departed does not disappoint. At its heart, this is a pulpy crime story told with more intelligence and insight than it probably requires, but you won’t hear me complain. It’s nice to have a great filmmaker like Scorcese playing on his home turf.