The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s cat-and-mouse thriller based on a highly acclaimed Hong Kong movie called Infernal Affairs, moves the action to contemporary Boston where an elite police squad is trying to bring down an Irish mob leader. Exploring issues of loyalty and betrayal, this gritty film draws us into its violent world of gangsters and cops, many who aren’t what they seem. But why did Scorsese change the movie’s title? “Infernal” certainly describes the plot more accurately. Still, many characters “depart” this life in The Departed, so maybe that’s what the veteran filmmaker wanted to emphasize.
At about the same time Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover policeman, infiltrates the Irish mob, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a cocky young rookie with mob connections, does the same inside the police force. Costigan was picked for his dangerous assignment by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his foul-mouthed Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) because he’s a cadet used to alternating between life on the streets and with his more advantaged relatives. Queenan and Dignam even set Costigan up with a jail sentence to make his criminal persona more believable. In contrast, Sullivan secretly works with Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a ruthless and depraved mob boss he’s known since childhood. Although the ambitious Sullivan finds it relatively easy to live his double life, Costigan worries constantly about the danger of exposure, and it’s DiCaprio’s intense portrayal of Costigan that evokes the greatest suspense in The Departed.
Coincidentally, both Sullivan and Costigan become involved with Madolyn, a vulnerable shrink played by Vera Farmiga (Running Scared). Madolyn, Sullivan’s fiancé, also works with Costigan initially as his assigned therapist. During a conversation with Madolyn, Damon’s character reminds her that Freud once said the Irish are “the only group of people impervious to therapy.” Ouch! Because of my Irish roots, that line hit too close to home.
Apparently reveling in their character assignments, all the actors perform superbly, but Nicholson steals the movie, as usual. Who cares if his Boston Irish accent isn’t consistent? He commands the screen with his trademark outrageous facial expressions in every one of his scenes. However, the most amazing acting comes from Wahlberg, who completely transforms himself into the angry sergeant he portrays. It took me several minutes before I even recognized Wahlberg as the terrific actor playing this take-no-prisoners part. I hope he appears on the short list for a Best Supporting Actor nomination when Oscar time rolls around.
Almost as impressive as the performances, the shocking dialogue in The Departed includes as many witty comments as crude and raunchy ones, and the involving plot -- though jumping back and forth a lot to show what’s happening to both Costigan and Sullivan -- moves along well. Not surprisingly, The Departed boasts more than its share of violent scenes, including bone crushings, stabbings and shootings. In fact, Scorsese’s depiction of Irish gangsters makes his earlier goombahs in Goodfellas look like a bunch of pansies.
If I had the power to change one thing about The Departed, I would add more depth in terms of motivation for the main characters. They’re all flawed, of course, but what made them that way? Nevertheless, although I wouldn’t want any of these people as an acquaintance or friend, I couldn’t help being drawn into their intrigues and dilemmas.
I found The Departed to be one of Martin Scorsese’s most fascinating films -- and his best effort since Cape Fear.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "R" for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material.)