The good news is, Martin Scorsese is back doing what he does best: making stylish, wildly violent, borderline-operatic gangster films. The not-so-good news is, he doesn't do this quite as well as he once did.
The Departed has earned nearly universal critical acclaim, along with favorable comparison to the director's classic works in the form, Goodfellas and Casino. But Scorsese's latest doesn't merit inclusion alongside his first-tier creations; it belongs with the second.
The filmmaker's previous less-than-optimal remakes include his 1991 updating of Cape Fear, which added little to the original and likewise ranks among the filmmaker's lesser work. I hate to say it, but that's also the case with this re-imagining of 2002's Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs, the international smash that provides the premise and essential structure for The Departed.
As movie premises go, it's a pip. Scorsese has moved the action to Boston and retooled the central conflict into a street war between a Special Investigations Unit composed of city cops, state police and FBI agents, and the crime family run by an Irish Mafia boss named Frank Costello. The picture's irresistible gimmick is that each side has a mole in the other's camp and is constantly being tipped off about its opponent's next move.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives a suitably intense performance as Billy Costigan, a young state police officer of Irish-American descent who's handpicked by his superiors to go undercover and infiltrate Costello's inner circle. Matt Damon costars as DiCaprio's counterpart. He plays Colin Sullivan, also a product of the city's Irish-American neighborhoods, and also a member of the Massachusetts State Police. His secret is that Costello took him under his wing as a boy, and his law-enforcement career is actually part of the gangster's long-term strategy to have Irish eyes and ears on the inside. The sort of thing one might expect to get noticed when a crime figure has been under surveillance for decades, but there you go.
More calls for suspension of disbelief follow. By a lucky coincidence, Sullivan is chosen from a pool of hundreds to work hand-in-hand with the leader (Alec Baldwin) of the unit whose mission is to take down his mentor. This is, to say the least, a serendipitous development for Sullivan, who just as easily could have found himself writing speeding tickets in Framingham.
The object of all this attention is played with gusto and glee by Jack Nicholson, whose role in The Departed is at once the film's greatest strength and its most insurmountable weakness. Scorsese introduces him at the start of the film with a trademark touch. As "Gimme Shelter" soars in the background (this is the third film in which the director has featured the Stones song), Costello ushers us into his world with a brief but pithy voice-over monologue. "I don't want to be a product of my environment," he winks at the viewer. "I want my environment to be a product of me."
The next thing we know, the games have begun. Damon's character leases an expensive apartment with a view of the golden dome on Beacon Hill. Why would he sign on the line when the rent would bust the budget of a lowly police officer? William Monahan's script offers only the sketchiest hint that he harbors ambitions and dreams of higher power. We're left to fill in virtually all the blanks, such as how it is that no one on the force catches on to the fact that his lifestyle is mysteriously subsidized. Isn't unearned income the oldest red flag in the dirty-cop book?
Just as Sullivan is settling in, DiCaprio is making his presence known across the tracks, selling dope alongside a connected cousin, and starting fights in bars frequented by Costello's closest associates. It isn't long before his moxie has caught the mobster's attention and he's been invited to serve at his right hand - as though tough young criminals were in desperately short supply. At tremendous peril to his life, the undercover cop spends the months that follow text-messaging his boss (Martin Sheen) to tip him off when deals are about to go down.
Sullivan does most of his communicating with Costello on a cellphone, too. In some cases, he alerts Costello to imminent police action while he's just feet away from fellow officers - on occasion even his boss. When it becomes known that the gangster has managed to get a mole into the unit, all of its officers are investigated, and yet no one thinks to check phone records. For every nice touch in Monahan's screenplay, there's a big-time slip-up like this one.
Where it leaves the most to be desired, though, is in its fleshing-out of the film's central figure. Nicholson and Scorsese would seem a marriage made in mean-street heaven - and the movie does have a number of spiffy, inspired moments. But the fact is, Frank Costello never fully comes into focus. In the end, the character is little more than a collection of the legendary actor's flourishes, mannerisms and experiments. Monahan has given the gangster a reputation but thrown him onto the stage all but devoid of psychological underpinning.
Recall how totally one understood Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas, or both Joe Pesci's and Robert De Niro's in Casino. There are secondary players in both those pictures who are more fully developed than Nicholson's role is here. Think of the mob boss played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas. His was a minor part compared to Costello's here, and yet, almost two decades later, he's remembered as a far more complete and artful creation. Nicholas Pileggi wrote the scripts for both those masterpieces. When all is said and done, his absence here is doubtlessly more notable than that of either Pesci or De Niro.
This is a good film from a great director and that is nothing to sneeze at. But it's a bittersweet thing when an artist of Scorsese's caliber delivers less than his best. How many more movies of this kind is he likely to make? How likely does it now seem that he already made the best of them a long time ago? The Departed left me asking questions, and I'm not certain I want to know the answers.