The DepartedIt’s been a while since Martin Scorsese has made a gangster movie. After 1990’s “Goodfellas” and 1995’s “Casino” the legendary director’s output has been largely dramatic: Films like “The Age of Innocence”, “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” have allowed him to broaden his palette somewhat and to work with new talent like Leonardo DiCaprio who is by now almost as big a Scorsese trademark as Robert deNiro. It’s not to say that these films aren’t good, no in fact they’re very good but it somehow seemed inevitable that one day Scorsese would return to his film-making roots of the gangster or mobster genre. His 2006 film “The Departed” is such a throwback in many ways, combining the best of vintage and “new” Scorsese and while it may not quite reach the heights of some of those other classics, “The Departed” nevertheless has a pretty good shot at it. It certainly justified the long-awaited Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for the director, deserved recognition from an association that has passed over his pictures many times in the past.

Adapted from the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”, the screenplay by William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) is a masterpiece of storytelling and intrigue, focusing on the ongoing war between the Boston PD and the Irish-American Mafia led by mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in the city. Both sides employ moles to infiltrate the other, on one side undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), on the other state detective Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) who secretly works for Costello. Their double lives are led on a knife’s edge, a dangerous game of cat and mouse that threatens to explode at every turn – and does. Each man’s journey up the ranks is fascinating to follow, Damon’s charming and charismatic but ultimately deceiving and brutal Sullivan an excellent counterpoint to Costigan who needs to prove himself loyal to the mobsters who suspect a rat, but is running on empty inside. And both always living in the shadow of Frank Costello. This is of course true of the actors as well: both Damon and DiCaprio give performances that rank among the best of their careers. Jack Nicholson however, plays these kind of roles with such relish and a deranged, sleazy charm that he can hold the breath of any audience with ease, his Costello is unpredictable, chilling and quite frankly very, very scary.

The movie belongs to three leads, mainly Nicholson, no question but Scorsese has still managed to assemble an awesome supporting cast as well: Martin Sheen is always excellent, here as Police Captain Queenan as is Ray Winstone in the role of Costello’s closest ally Mr. French. Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg throw enough insults at each other to fill a book. Wahlberg is particularly bad-ass and the very final scene is worth waiting for just for him. Graphic violence of this magnitude has always been one of Scorsese’s calling cards as well and things do frequently boil over: Action set-pieces are expertly staged and often gruesomely displayed. With the exception of a dirty computer processor deal and some drug running however, criminal activities are placed somewhat in the background. It could therefore be argued that it’s not a classic Mafia movie per se as we never really get under the skin to see how exactly this crime world ticks. But that was hardly the intent because Scorsese has shown us that before and he makes it clear that the focus should (rightly) be on the infiltration stories. To facilitate this, Vera Farmiga’s character Madolyn is significant, acting as the only link between the two moles – unknowingly of course. In many ways she and DiCaprio provide most of the film’s emotional anchor for the viewers.

The Departed OSTMartin Scorsese has always been very specific when choosing music to accompany his pictures, often personally putting together a mix-tape of songs, including one that then becomes the film’s signature. Here it’s “Shipping Out to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphy’s and its Irish and rock roots fit perfectly with the mood of the film. Not as immediately audible is the original score courtesy of Scorsese’s current composer of choice Howard Shore. The score consists of an excellent selection of tango and guitar (both electric and acoustic) pieces, despite there being no Latin influences in the story. It’s a complete departure (no pun intended…) from all of Shore’s previous work, those expecting to hear some horror-like dissonance or something LotR-esque could be disappointed but really it’s the mark of a master musical chameleon. Call it a curiosity if you will but for some reason it just works in the film and makes for an excellent album listen. Two are available, one with songs and two score tracks, the other a score only CD. You can read my full review of “The Departed” soundtrack here.

A stellar cast and an outstanding screenplay put this film right at the top of a year of excellent films, many of which could have been Oscar winners in other years. However awards hype aside, “The Departed” confirms that Scorsese still rules the roost with gangster pictures and while the film may not cover much new ground in its exploration of the crime underworld, it remains one of his most entertaining films ever. And really, that’s saying something!

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