After watching The Godfather I was turned on to the mob movie and started hunting them down, one by one. When I finally got around to Goodfellas, I was tired of seeing the same type of story more or less presented in the same type of way. Goodfellas, with its constant voiceover and massive tracking shots, was something completely different. It was the movie that caused me to watch Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Casino and Raging Bull. Scorsese quickly became my favorite film director and has held that position ever since.
Scorsese has recently been recognized for films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator. While those films were not bad, they were nothing like vintage Scorsese, and were ultimately most notable for turning Leonardo DiCaprio into the A-list actor who had been hiding since What's Eating Gilbert Grape.
In his most recent directorial effort, The Departed, Scorsese stays true in his devotion to DiCaprio, but turns out a movie that is a thrilling and exciting return to form.
The Departed is a remake of a Hong Kong film about organized crime called Infernal Affairs. That movie is fantastic, although it has a few glaring flaws. Scorsese's film takes the basic story and transplants it into the world of Irish organized crime in south Boston.
The plot of the film is both simple and delightfully complex. DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a member of the state police who is sent on a super-secret undercover mission to infiltrate the local mob. The head of said mob is Frank Costello, played by an absolutely gleeful Jack Nicholson. He has bred his own mole in Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) who is rapidly climbing to the upper echelons of the state police.
The story kicks into high gear when Sullivan is assigned by his superiors to bring down the mole in their unit. Meanwhile, Billy Costigan is quickly becoming Costello's right hand man, but his future turns bleak when Costello takes steps to smoke out the Benedict Arnold in his midst.
Every supporting role is just as perfectly cast. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as the boss of the elite unit assigned to bring Costello down. Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen are in turn completely over-the-top and sincere as the only two cops aware of DiCaprio's true identity.
The acting in this film is superb across the board. It is fun to see Damon be able to lapse back into the accent and dialect of the place where he grew up, although it occasionally brings out the flaws in the other actors' speech. Wahlberg gets a few shining moments and some especially choice lines, tackling them all with equal aplomb, nailing each and every one to the wall.
Vera Farmiga, who looks uncannily like a supermodel version of the young Mia Farrow, turns in a slightly underused portrait of a police psychiatrist, functioning as the love interest for the undercover alter-egos of both Costigan and Sullivan.
Nicholson works as hard as ever to be the one who steals the show. But it is difficult to tell at this point in his career where the line is drawn in his performances. His auto-pilot seems to be awfully close to his firing-on-all-cylinders these days, but it works in The Departed, so in the end it doesn't really matter.
The gold star in this film though goes to DiCaprio. While Damon is fantastic, it is good old Leo that emerges as the real actor. Costigan's undercover world is a dangerous one. He constantly walks a tightrope over an endless sea of possible demises, each one more gruesome than the next. It is just as easy to see the effect this has on his character in the quiet scenes as in the explosively emotional ones. The life he is forced to lead is much too close to the one that he could have wound up in. He knows it, and it tears him up. DiCaprio's ability to convey this to the audience without words elevates this performance to the top of the heap in what is already an unbelievable impressive career.
Scorsese is the final star of The Departed. His direction is a breathless hearkening back to his days of slightly less weighty fare, and it is a winner. He is one of the premier American masters still working on films today, and even in what is ultimately a popcorn flick, it shows. This is undeniably his best film in years, and it is perfect evidence of what a genius can do when his story backs him up.
Although films like The Departed don't often get enough credit come Hollywood award season, in this case it doesn't matter. This film deserves to contend for every award available, but I don't even care. I know that it is the most fun I've had at the movies in a long time, and at this point, that is all I need.