Just as Spike Lee took a basic caper and added his own pet issues to elevate Inside Man to the upper echelons of its genre, Martin Scorsese has taken The Departed, based on an intriguingly simple premise, to its own heights by infusing issues that have concerned him ever since Mean Streets. Along the way, he makes room for some memorable performances, not the least of which comes from the most likely of sources.
The Departed is based on the Hong Kong blockbuster Infernal Affairs, in which a cop goes undercover in the mob while the mob places one of their own as a mole in the police force. In Scorsese’s version, the scene shifts to Boston, where mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) puts loyal-from-boyhood employee Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) through police training. As Sullivan rises through the ranks, Special Investigations Unit chiefs Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) recruit rookie Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get ‘kicked off’ the force and do time to gain Costello’s confidence.
All of this happens before the opening titles.
Which is not to say that the pace of the film is all that brisk. Part of the price Scorsese pays for taking the basic premise of Infernal Affairs and then digging for themes is a beefy running time — a solid 149 minutes to Affairs‘ 97. That said, Scorsese hasn’t exactly packed the rest with fluff. He keeps the basic plot of the original and revisits some of its best scenes, but takes his time with the spaces in between.
Issues of masculinity, race, class, masculinity, Catholic guilt, and masculinity tend to come up a bit in Scorsese’s oeuvre, and this film is no exception. While Sullivan and Costigan circle each other, their own roles as not just criminal and cop, but as affluent white male and poor Irish thug come to the fore. Given Sullivan’s gradual transformation from Southie to Yuppie, another title might have been The Assimilated.
Costello’s casual racism (it takes less than five minutes for him to tell us what he has against black people) underscores the mistrust that permeates not just his world, but the cops’ as well. An encounter with a bunch of Chinese gangsters takes this to nationalistic levels, with Costello raging on about how we do business ‘in this country.’ Like Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, he’s not just a sociopath, he’s a patriotic sociopath.
Scorsese also lets loose with a torrent of phallic symbols (well, one isn’t actually a symbol, it’s more of an actual phallus), Freudian references, and good, old-fashioned repressed sexuality. When Costello’s moll (Kristen Dalton) purrs that she’ll ‘straighten him out’ after hearing him get all hot and bothered while threatening one of his men, it’s one of many cues that maybe all this killing would stop if the boys could just be more secure in their manhood.
The performances rise to meet the emotional complexity of William Monahan’s adaptation. DiCaprio and Damon are as solid as ever, but it’s Wahlberg who ends up being the scene stealer, with dialogue that sets a new benchmark for the title of Abrasive Police Chief. Alec Baldwin, as the head of Sullivan’s unit, chews whatever scenery Wahlberg misses.
In the end, though, this is Jack’s world and everybody else is just acting in it. Nicholson infuses Costello with the effortless charm and maniacal glee we’ve come to expect from our mob bosses, but makes room for some petty desperation as well.
The Departed is not without its flaws. It gets a bit repetitive, Vera Farmiga’s role as a psychiatrist torn between the leads is underwritten, and the coda feels like it was tacked on by a grumpy test audience. Regardless, it’s proof positive that neither Scorsese nor Nicholson has lost his touch.
The DVD includes two discs, with a number of deleted scenes (with commentary from Scorsese), a feature-length documentary about Scorsese, a featurette about the real gangster behind Nicholson’s charactor, and another documentary about how mob violence has influenced Scorsese.
Clean up your desks, coppers.