With a virtual Who’s Who List of Hollywood royalty in its cast, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed has burst onto the scene as one of the must-see movies of this year.
The movie is about two Irish American cops, both living in Boston, both leading double lives. Sullivan, played by Matt Damon, is a mob stooge who has infiltrated his way up through the ranks to become an elite detective. Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, plays an earnest undercover cop who has infiltrated the mob. Their story becomes a giant cat-and-mouse game as they attempt to flush each other out. Their story is also complicated by the fact that they both fall for the same woman.
Scorsese is, in this movie, an overly brutal editor, often forcing the viewer to make assumptions rather than spelling anything out. So if you blink twice you might miss one of the clues. Even so, the overarching plot is not that complicated. The movie’s theme about the supposedly thin line between cops and criminals has been done before, and better. Some parts of the movie are superfluous and others just plain don’t make sense. And the movie positively telegraphs its own ending.
Yet, in spite of all of these weaknesses, The Departed is still wildly entertaining. Why? Because of snappy dialog and stellar performances. Nicholson is riveting as Irish Mob Boss, Frank Costello. You never really get the impression that he’s sane enough to run a gas station, much less the Irish Mafia, but he’s absolutely hilarious. From his opening rant about how the Irish immigrants took the Presidency within one generation, to the blood-soaked show he puts on to smoke out the rat in his organization, it’s vintage Nicholson. Which is to say, you just can’t look away. But Nicholson isn’t the only stand-out performance.
This movie absolutely belongs to Matt Damon. As clean-cut, overachieving Collin Sullivan, he’s frighteningly believable in everything he does. It helps that Damon is a Boston native and the accent comes easy. But he’s such a good liar, that even the audience has to wonder whose side his character is really on. Damon plays Officer Sullivan as a guy with a plausible excuse for every screw up and a line for every occasion. And while crassly courting his leading lady, Damon exudes raw, shocking and unexpected sex appeal. He tells her that he’d stick and ice pick through someone’s chest for a date with her, and somehow makes it sound charming!
Then there’s DiCaprio. Perhaps you’ve always seen him as the pretty-boy standing on the deck of the Titanic. If so, this movie will help you get over it. DiCaprio acts his heart out as undercover cover cop Billy Costigan, putting more depth into the character than the writers bothered to put on paper. There are hints at Costigan’s past, and his moral character – kind to his dying mother, looking for a place in this world, hungry for recognition and status. But mostly it’s DiCaprio who plays upon the heart-strings with his role as an under cover cop living the exact life of criminality he tried so hard to escape.
These performances are supplemented by a great cast, including Martin Sheen as the fatherly Captain Queenan who is one of only two people in the department who know that Costigan is actually an undercover agent. Alec Baldwin shows up for added color and a great argument with Mark Wahlberg. In fact, all the best dialog goes to Wahlberg’s officer Denigan – who is so offensive, you won’t be able to stop laughing.
The Departed is more comedy than drama, which keeps you from getting too invested. Given the gruesome violence of the film, this might be a good thing. The film is, after all, not the Godfather nor even Goodfellas. It sometimes lacks depth and has a vastly overcrowded stage. You can’t ask Alec Baldwin to show up for a movie without giving him a decent amount of screen time, but he doesn’t need it. And the star power of the film sometimes overpowers its storyline.
But for an intelligent, fast-paced action flick, this movie is at the top of the list. Get your popcorn early, because you won’t want to miss a moment of the show. Bottom line? The Departed is like great Chinese food. The flavor, intensity and variety is fantastic, but hours later, you may find that you’re unsatisfied.