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Not since my review of No Country for Old Men early in this blog’s existence have I reviewed a film that I have such complicated feelings toward. Much like that particular Coen brothers film, The Departed was the movie where Hollywood royalty (in this case Martin Scorsese) finally took home the big prize. Yet, just like No Country for Old Men, there is a sizable portion of that director’s fan-base who feel Scorsese was rewarded for the wrong film. I consider myself to be a bit of a Scorsese buff, and I can name around five of his films that I think are better than The Departed and quite a few films from 2006 that were more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar (Pan’s Labyrinth, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Children just to name a few). That’s not to say this isn’t a good movie. It is, in fact, a great film (that far exceeds it’s source material, Infernal Affairs). It just has enough flaws to keep it from reaching the top-tier of Scorsese classics.

You do have to give The Departed and Martin Scorsese (as well as screenwriter William Monahan) credit for something though. The Departed (alongside Peter Jackson’s re-imagination of King Kong) has become the standard by which any future remake has to be judged. Current readers will know I reviewed Infernal Affairs last week, and I found it to be an all-style/no-substance affair. That was actually my primary complaint about The Departed for years although upon more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the subtext the film contained. And despite The Departed‘s occasional slightness, it expands and broadens every aspect of Infernal Affairs. Characters that were broad generalizations are given life and depth, and with the exception of Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, Boston has rarely felt this alive in cinema.

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With many added characters and a geographical facelift, The Departed is a very Irish-American take (coming from the ultimate Italian-American film-maker, Martin Scorsese) on the Hong Kong action of Infernal Affairs. Irish mafia king-pin Frank Costello (Chinatown‘s Jack Nicholson) runs the Boston underworld, and it puts him right in the sights of Massachussetts State Police Captain Queenan (Catch-22‘s Martin Sheen). Queenan runs the Undercover Department of the Special Investigation’s Unit, and along with his assistant Dignam (The Fighter‘s Mark Wahlberg), he hires Billy Costigan (Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), a State Police cadet, to go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s organization. At the same time, Costello has Colin Sullivan (Margaret‘s Matt Damon) joining the Massachusetts State Police where he quickly climbs the ranks and becomes Costello’s mole in the police. And it’s not long before both Costigan and Sullivan have to hunt each other.

Where The Departed really sets itself apart from Infernal Affairs (besides the better cast, better direction, better editing, etc) is that beneath the cat-and-mouse game at the heart of the film and the violent crime action is a tale about identity, redemption, family, and being something more than fate decides you should be. The obvious theme to discuss is identity and how men and women who go undercover as cops often risk becoming the very people they’re trying to hunt. That was all of Donnie Brasco, and The Departed makes it so much more compelling. Maybe it’s cause DiCaprio handles the terrain better than Johnny Depp (more on DiCaprio shortly), but the dramatic thrust of the schizophrenic state Billy Costigan always had to place himself in was what kept the tightly wound crime thriller glued together.

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To me, any discussion though of the film’s merits have to begin and end with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fearless performance as Billy Costigan. He got his Oscar nomination that year for Blood Diamond, but it should have been for this film, and honestly, he was just as good as Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. This was a career-defining performance from Leo, and much like Robert De Niro before him, this was the film that cemented him as Scorsese’s new acting muse. Billy Costigan demands that Leo can reach every spot on the emotional continuum and often flip between them instantly. And not only does Leo do this, he nearly sets a new bar for masculine vulnerability. There is an emotional nakedness that Leo taps into for some of the most important scenes of the film, and it is rare to see a male actor display so much of his soul in a performance.

The rest of the cast was wonderful as well, and it’s honestly impossible to pick favorites. It’s kind of ridiculous that Mark Wahlberg got an Oscar nomination when Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin didn’t (as they both gave more interesting performances) though Marky Mark did do a good job in his spot. This was not one of the definitive performances of Matt Damon’s career, but he channeled the smugness and confidence that someone like Colin Sullivan would need to reach the top. Martin Sheen shined as the paternal Captain Queenan (even though he couldn’t always keep up the Boston accent). Some have accused Jack Nicholson’s performance of being too hammy, but I’m pretty sure it was intentional, and it added to the flamboyancy of the Costello character. And as the shared love interest of both Costigan and Sullivan, Vera Farmiga brings her own vulnerable sexuality to the equation as a psychiatrist.

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And, in classic Scorsese style, The Departed is a technical movie fan’s dream. There are issues I take with the direction (more on that later), but mostly, Scorsese proves again and again why he will be forever remembered as one of the most important figures in American cinema. Whether it’s the lighting, the quick cross-cutting, the not-so-subtle religious iconography, or the graphic, stylized violence, The Departed feels like a Scorsese film through and through, and after the decade spent the better part of the decade exploring more serious affairs like The Aviator and Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s return to his organized crime roots was certainly a breath of fresh air to his legions of fans. The Departed runs two and a half hours long, which is about thirty minutes too long for this story, but it took Scorsese’s steady hand to make that length bearable and consistently fun.

However, that doesn’t erase the fact that the film is too long. And while the pacing remains generally propulsive, there are moments where it lags, and I don’t just mean that it slows down to focus on characters. That’s fine. But many of the moments where the film tries to develop the Colin Sullivan character feel less well-realized than the other moments in the film, and unlike Infernal Affairs (where the dirty cop was just as interesting, if not more interesting than the undercover cop), Sullivan just never reaches the dramatic heights that Costigan finds. The sections where the film alludes to his sexual dysfunctions are especially poorly done and just don’t hit with me. Also, Infernal Affairs has a better ending than The Departed. I don’t want to ruin either film’s ending, but if you’ve seen both, I’m not sure if it’s possible to feel that Scorsese’s ending didn’t dilute the powerful nature of the other film’s climax.

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I’ll draw this to a close (this particular review keeps reminding me that I should start taking notes as I watch movies I plan on reviewing like I did in the past) and leave with these parting thoughts. The Departed is a great film and one of the definitive crime epics of the 2000s. Sadly, the competition in that particular category wasn’t as fierce as it was in the 90s and 70s. And Martin Scorsese is such a storied director with such a sizable library of classic films (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, etc) that The Departed ranks somewhere alongside Hugo in a list of his great films that just aren’t as legendary as his definitive works. Still, for fans of Scorsese and fans of crime movies in general, The Departed is about as can’t miss as they come.

Final Score: A-

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