Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan
Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan
Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello
Martin Sheen as Oliver Queenan
Vera Farmiga as Madeleine
Mark Wahlberg as Dignam
Anthony Anderson as Brown
Ray Winstone as Mr. French
Alec Baldwin as Ellerby
Directed by Martin Scorsese
“The Departed” isn’t Scorsese’s best or most ambitious work, but it uses a unique approach to expand on the original movie’s clever double agent premise.
In Boston, two State Police cadets take their careers on different trajectories: Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) always wanted to be a police officer, but instead, he’s put into a secret undercover program to infiltrate the inner circle of mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson). Colin Sullivan (Damon) spent most of his youth working for Costello but after excelling at the Police Academy, he quickly moves up the ranks, providing Costello with information to stay one step ahead of the police. Both of their bosses realize they need to expose and eliminate the other’s mole if they ever want to put an end to the endless cycle.
To rave about Martin Scorsese’s return to crime drama without mentioning its source material, Andrew Lau and Andy Mak’s Hong Kong based “Infernal Affairs,” would be a worse crime than anything in the movie; most of the best ideas and scenes come straight from their complex thriller about undercover cops and criminal moles. On the other hand, one must give credit to screenwriter William Monahan for transplanting that clever premise into Scorsese’s gritty Boston setting, adapting and embellishing the original story with richer characters that make this a stronger movie overall.
The fundamental problem with “Infernal Affairs” was that its complex premise was set up very quickly in its opening five minutes, not giving you any time to know the characters before throwing them together. Scorsese and Monahan take their time introducing Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan, first as a boy working for criminal Frank Costello, then years later, training at the Police Academy alongside Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan, who is expelled for covering up his family’s criminal history. Or so it seems, because he’s actually placed in a secret undercover program, using his connections to join Frank Costello’s gang, an induction process we watch play out step-by-step.
Meanwhile, Sullivan moves up the ranks of the State Police, rankling a lot of feathers along the way for always being three steps ahead of the bad guys. Of course, no one knows he’s being fed select information directly from his benefactor Costello, and in an ironic twist, Sullivan is put in charge of finding both Costello’s mole in the police force and the undercover cop within Costello’s gang. The jobs start to take its toll on both men as they try to protect their secret while outing their counterpart, and a pretty psychologist, played by Vera Farmiga, gets stuck in the middle as she finds herself dating one of the men and treating the other.
“The Departed” isn’t a particularly ambitious project for Scorsese, who returns to moral themes he’s explored in all his crime movies going back to “Mean Streets.” At this point, it almost seems like a copout (no pun intended) to return to the crime genre after young guns like Tarantino and Ritchie took the genre into grittier territory. Subscribing to the Peter Jackson school of remakes, Scorsese adds a full hour to the running time of his remake, using the original premise to explore some of his own thoughts on crime and the law, spending a lot more time exploring Costigan and Sullivan’s motivations as the movie covers what seems to be years in the lives of the characters. All that exposition may be too much for the premise to bear, because once a love triangle is introduced into the mix, every chance encounter makes things less plausible.
On the other hand, Scorsese has assembled another great cast, though neither Damon nor DiCaprio are venturing too far away from their norm. Costigan is only a slight twist on DiCaprio’s anti-hero Frank Abignale, while Sullivan seems to be a mix of Jason Bourne and Linus Caldwell with a bit more confidence thrown in. The nature of these roles insure that the actors have very little screen time together, which is fine, because as much as the story is about the morality of double agents, it always comes back to Jack Nicholson’s outrageous performance as Frank Costello, who steals the movie much like Daniel Day Lewis dominated “Gangs of New York.” Costello is on par with Nicholson’s most memorable characters, even one-upping Eric Tsang’s jovial gangster from the original trilogy, and the scenes between Nicholson and DiCaprio are as riveting as the best scenes in Scorsese’s past work.
Once things are in place, the movie follows the original storyline almost verbatim. If you’ve seen “Infernal Affairs,” you probably won’t be nearly as shocked by the movie’s clever twists and turns, even with the new inventions like the aforementioned love triangle, and a new character in Mark Wahlberg, who puts aside his nice guy proclivities to play the brash, obscenity-spewing right hand man of Martin Sheen’s police captain. Wahlberg is hilarious, taking up the slack whenever Nicholson isn’t on screen, and he’s even funnier when bickering with Alec Baldwin as the head of a quarreling faction within the police force. Like in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” the pronounced Boston accents are sometimes distracting and only convincing when delivered by Boston natives Damon and Wahlberg.
Despite the great script and character work, “The Departed” looks mundane due to the generic camerawork and unimpressive production design. Maybe it suits the realistic Boston setting where Scorsese wanted to set this story, but compared to the stylish look of “Infernal Affairs,” it just doesn’t stand out and makes the movie seem dated in a bad way.
The Bottom Line:
Scorsese’s fans should eat up his long-awaited return to the crime genre, though anyone who has seen “Infernal Affairs” will fully realize where the best parts of the movie come from. “The Departed” certainly is an interest twist on the Hong Kong original, but often forsakes the stylish action in favor of excessive exposition and needless expansion on a fairly straightforward plot. It’s still a really entertaining movie, but by no means a classic.