On Oct. 6, 2006, Martin Scorsese’s star-studded, crowd-pleasing gangster film The Departed hit theaters, eventually grossing more than $280 million worldwide and claiming the best picture Oscar at the 79th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Thank God we have Martin Scorsese back. After a couple of films where one of the best directors ever seemed more intent on pleasing Academy voters than millions of admirers, Scorsese returns to contemporary crime fiction with a hugely satisfying bang.
The Departed is a robust piece of storytelling and his best film since Casino in 1995. Everything is rock solid: Top actors with meaty roles that let them go to the edge without toppling over that edge, a story that keeps upping the tension and emotional ante every few minutes, Michael Ballhaus‘ gliding camera and shadowy lighting, Kristi Zea’s atmospheric sets and Thelma Schoonmaker’s tight, rhythmic editing all conspire to take us into a heart of urban darkness.
Best of all, Scorsese’s relaxed energy infuses the film with excitement in every frame, thus elevating a gangster story to the level of tragedy. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg top-billed, The Departed should attract a sizable audience, though men certainly will outnumber women.
The film, written by William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven), derives from Infernal Affairs, a hugely popular 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller co-directed by Alan Mak and Andrew Lau Wai Keung and written by Mak and Felix Chong. That too was a doozy of tight construction and breathtaking suspense. The story remains remarkably intact despite its transfer from cops and criminals in Hong Kong to a war between state police and a tough Irish mob in south Boston.
The genius of both films is to focus on two moles on opposite sides of the law. Each has risen to a position of authority and responsibility, making him a lethally effective spy. Only by this time, each has wearied of the constant deceptions and lies, of the loneliness and terror of being stranded in a no-man’s-land between good and evil. Indeed the Chinese title, “Mo-gaan-do,” refers to the lowest level of hell in Buddhism.
Mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) hand-picks young Colin Sullivan (Damon) at an early age to mentor then slip into the ranks of the state police. Colin swiftly rises through the ranks to a spot in the Special Investigation Unit, whose main focus is to take down Costello.
Meanwhile, another police rookie, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), is asked by two powerful men in that unit — the caustic Sgt. Dignam (Wahlberg) and his level-headed superior Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) — to live down to his reputation of a street hothead. For credibility’s sake, he is very publicly busted out of the state police, does a stint in prison and gets tossed onto the streets, where he can infiltrate the Costello gang. After a recruitment by Frank’s right-hand man, Mr. French (Ray Winstone), and a brutal interrogation by Frank himself, he’s in.
It’s only a matter of time before these parallel careers crisscross at a dangerous intersection. In a sequence that fans of the original film will quickly recognize, during an illicit transaction between Frank’s gang and Chinese government agents over the sale of military parts, both cops and criminals recognize that a mole exists within their respective camps. Pressure mounts excruciatingly as each mole must find ways to communicate via cellphone during the operation. Then, afterward, each races against time to discover the identity of the other man to save himself.
One other intersection in their lives that stretches coincidence pretty thinly is psychologist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), who specializes in both cops and criminals. Colin strikes up a flirtation with her, and before long she moves in with him. Billy, as part of his parole, is forced to see Madolyn professionally. At first he does so reluctantly, then discovers she is his sole lifeline to the normal life he desperately craves. That this highly charged relationship would also turn sexual is more than far-fetched. But Madolyn’s dual relationship with these men lets each reveal vulnerabilities he is unable to show elsewhere.
Costello is a familiar piece of acting from Nicholson — part demented caricature, part tongue-in-cheek flamboyance. But the actors surrounding him rise to the occasion so that he neither dominates the movie nor wastes away in buffoonery.
DiCaprio brings a level of emotional intensity and maturity missing so far in his adult roles. His Billy has a tough soul, but the inner core is about to crack and the fissures are becoming too evident. Damon is a walking contradiction: He looks and acts more like a cop than anyone else in the movie, yet he’s a phony. Damon doesn’t let us inside his character the way DiCaprio does; instead his Colin buries emotions in a place he discovered so many years ago in Frank’s service.
Wahlberg is nasty and coarse as Dignam, knowing full well his partner, Sheen’s Queenan, offsets his corrosiveness. Theirs is a good cop/bad cop routine — only directed not at criminals but fellow cops.
Winstone as the emotionless killer and Alec Baldwin as the crime unit’s captain are loyalists to the system who work opposite sides of the street. Farmiga — a fine actress coming into her own in this role and in Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering — not only provides a welcome breath of femininity but as the only character not a cop or a crook, she becomes the moral center of the film.
The Departed is a ferociously entertaining film. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published Oct. 3, 2006