What’s not to like about “The Departed”? Matt Damon: good. Leonardo DiCaprio: good. Heart-pounding suspense, horrific violence and a slew of sadistic, foul-mouthed, chauvinist deviants: good, good and good.
Following his most recent overlong, if merited, efforts — “Gangs of New York” (2002) and “The Aviator” (2004), both of which also starred Leonardo DiCaprio — many viewers may have begun to lose faith in Martin Scorsese. But with never a dull moment or a spare detail, “The Departed” brings the legendary director back into the spotlight and reconfirms his ability to make films that are as entertaining as they are thoughtful.
That’s not to say that “The Departed” will certainly win that long-coveted Oscar for him this year (though it could), but this Catholic mob drama — crammed with themes of guilt, redemption and male insecurity — manages to be more than a Scorsese pet project. It is also one hell of a good time.
Adapted from a 2002 Hong Kong film called “Infernal Affairs,” “The Departed” features two hunky moles who penetrate each other’s worlds. One is a young mobster (Damon) planted in the Boston State Police, while the other is an undercover cop (DiCaprio) risking death by infiltrating the Irish mafia — headed by a ruthless, bloodthirsty boss named Frank Costello, played by an admittedly still kind of sexy Jack Nicholson.
Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin round out the list of big names in a powerhouse cast that reads like the sign-up sheet for a contest called “Who’s got the biggest dick in Hollywood?” The weirdly masculine Vera Farmiga plays the conflicted love interest of both Damon and DiCaprio and provides the only (albeit paltry) dose of estrogen in the film.
And while every actor is in tip-top shape (in both the physical and the dramatic sense), they shouldn’t be allowed to draw too much attention away from the equally heavy-hitting director. Scorsese’s master hand guides “The Departed” through its own maze of double identities, betrayals and numerous other complications. His experience serves him well, preventing him from falling into any fits of “over-directing.” Though Scorsese does occasionally employ the rock-music soundtrack and flashy editing characteristic of his usual style, “The Departed” shines brightest when fueled by the innate tension of a scene. With the script a shaky pyramid made up of lies, the actors’ screen presence and a few words — which, at times, is all we get from Scorsese — is all that’s required to carry the film.
Yet the departing impression of this film is not one of quietly unfolding drama. Rather, it seems there are no quiet moments, no time for reflection or grief and no apologies for the quick and brutal deaths witnessed by the audience. Things end with a bang, so to speak, and that isn’t the only jaw-dropping instant in 152 minutes of crime and punishment.
If any complaint, however meager, can be lodged against “The Departed,” it’s that it lacks a degree of sheer creativity. Scorsese tackles his usual themes with his usual bag of tricks. His characters are all, in some way, too familiar to us, and do and say little that we haven’t already seen or heard. Visually, “The Departed” looks like any other mafia film, which may explain the popular opinion that the trailer fails to offer anything new.
That may be true of the film as well, but like any tour-de-force, “The Departed” offers up the best example of each of its components. Directing, writing, acting, cinematography and all other production elements, with engines roaring and a polished design, race across the screen and never lose speed. To miss one moment of it, let alone the entire thing, is to skip out on one of the best cinematic experiences this year.
After all, what’s not to like? A testosterone-infused, fast-paced mafia flick with explicit language and violence directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Jack Nicholson: It just doesn’t get much better than that.