Saturday, October 07, 2006

Review - The Departed

“I don’t want to be the product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me”. So says Jack Nicholson in the guise of crime boss Frank Costello, the monstrous vortex of evil around whom everything in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed revolves. It seems to have taken a lifetime to finally bring together American cinema’s greatest filmmaker and the most iconic American actor of the past forty years, and the results are spectacular. Whether he’s brandishing a rubber dildo in a porn cinema, throwing clouds of cocaine in the air with two prostitutes, or idly playing around with a severed hand; Nicholson is outrageously, compulsively watchable. At one point he strolls nonchalantly into a crowded room covered in someone else’s blood and offers no explanation. Nobody dares to ask.

Nicholson’s performance sums up the kind of go-for-broke energy which makes The DepartedThe Departed is an inspired remake of the 2002 Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs, a slick cat-and-mouse game with an ingenious premise which had already spawned a brilliant sequel and a spurious third entry before this film. But while screenwriter William Monaghan mostly stays faithful to the original film’s premise, this version grows into a very different beast indeed; it grows into something purely Scorsese. such a gut-wrenchingly brilliant ride. After two grand, sprawling period pieces failed to find their audience and were encumbered by Oscar expectation, Scorsese has scaled down his ambitions somewhat to focus on the kind of violent urban crime drama with which he is most readily associated.

The Departed retains the smart plot hook which lit up Infernal Affairs. Di Caprio and Damon play Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan respectively, they’re both cadets in the Boston police force but their paths ultimately diverge dramatically. Costigan is sent undercover by the Special Investigations Unit to worm his way into Frank Costello’s gang, feeding back information which will help detectives Queenan (Martin Sheen), Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) finally snare the biggest fish in Boston’s underworld. However, Costello has pre-empted them by using Sullivan as his own mole in SIU, and he uses his inside information to help his mentor stay one step ahead of the exasperated cops.

From the moment Gimme Shelter plays out over the opening sequence this feels like the perfect film for Scorsese to make after his Oscar disappointments. Few directors are so adept at portraying the violent world of those on the wrong side of the law, and The Departed snaps and fizzes like Scorsese’s best work. Freed from the pressures and compromises which weighed down upon Gangs of New York and The Aviator, Scorsese seems so much more relaxed here, and his vigorous direction recaptures the kinetic, propulsive rush which characterised Goodfellas and the sadly underrated Bringing Out The Dead. It’s an exhilarating experience.

This is a markedly different film to Infernal Affairs, which was cool and understated where The Departed is brash and explosive. Many of the set-pieces will be familiar to those who have already seen the original, but Scorsese gives them all an extra bolt of energy, with only the central mobile phone sequence perhaps failing to hit the mark set by its predecessor. Scorsese continually looks for something fresh and new in every scene, and he invests the film with the same themes and obsessions which infuse all of his best work; the codes of masculinity, the emotional impact of violence, the tortured Catholicism. The Departed is an extremely violent film and Scorsese makes every act of bloodletting hit us hard, even when it’s occasionally played for laughs. He is without peer at showing us the seductive power of crime and then repelling us with the consequences, a paradox which is stunningly personified by Frank Costello.

It has been a while since I’ve seen an actor take a role and just run with it the way Nicholson does here. He pulls faces, waves daft props around, and generally looms large over every scene in which he appears. It’s an outrageously unrestrained performance which only Nicholson could pull off, but this isn’t just Jack being ‘Jack’ or going over the top for the sake of it, his Frank Costello is an extraordinary embodiment of evil whose sheer unpredictability keeps the film on edge at all times. There’s a tangible sense of tension in the air with nobody - sometimes not even his co-stars - seeming to know quite where Nicholson will take this character next. It’s a wonderful performance, twisted, hilarious and brutal.

As good as it is, however, a performance like this could so easily capsize the film if the rest of the cast didn't work so hard to keep it grounded. The Departed gives every actor their chance to shine and it offers many of them the best roles of their careers. Di Caprio and Damon are both magnificent in the lead roles; Di Caprio gives the most mature, convincing, psychologically nuanced display of his career thus far, and Damon's slimy turn as the duplicitous Sullivan is perfectly honed. Martin Sheen adds a touchingly paternal lilt to his small but effective role and Ray Winstone is an impressively feral presence as Costello's vicious right-hand man. The real surprise is Mark Wahlberg though, who delivers by far his best performance since Boogie Nightsand almost steals the whole picture. His Dignan has a innate sense of righteous anger and a sarcastic streak a mile wide, and Wahlberg gets a laugh with almost every foul-mouthed line he utters. He forms an unbeatable double-act with Baldwin, whose gets a few choice lines for himself, and the film's only weak link may be female lead Vera Farmiga as the psychiatrist who gets involved with both Costigan and Sullivan. She is an appealing presence but her part is unfortunately underwritten, and what should be a pivotal role tends to get lost in the general melee.

That’s one of the few caveats, and there are one or two more. It has been twenty years since Scorsese last made a film which ran under two hours, and his 150-minute The Departed is massively expanded in comparison with the 100-minute Infernal Affairs. Much of this expansion is positive, giving more background info on Costigan and Sullivan and making some significant changes to the plot towards the climax, but there’s no doubt that a couple of scenes could have been lost or trimmed and the film suffers from a slight sag halfway through. This dip in momentum is almost negligible but it could have been avoided, and the same goes for the odd visual pun Scorsese includes in the final shot.

But those are the only occasions The Departed slightly stumbles, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s incredible sense of pacing generally keeps the film flowing beautifully. This is a gloriously crafted film, with Michael Ballhaus providing mesmerising camerawork and the director’s use of music is as potent as ever.

Even though this is a rare Scorsese film which doesn’t take place in his native New York, it still feels like something of a homecoming, a return to crime genre which he has so often elevated to new heights, and with The Departed he shows the young pretenders who have followed him that the master can still do it better than anyone. Scorsese’s most recent films have been burdened by the question of whether he will finally win the Oscar which has been so long overdue; but frankly, who cares as long as he continues to make films which confirm his status as the greatest of all American filmmakers? That’s exactly the kind of film The Departed is. We should simply treasure it, and not worry about whether the Academy will finally act accordingly.