A new Martin Scorsese film always warrants attention, particularly given his recent resurgence with Gangs of New York (his most-watched film in years despite critical ambivalence – I was against the grain in finding it tremendous) and The Aviator (also great, if a little cold). Much has already been written about his return to crime with The Departed, to a genre that has defined much of his career with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas. Despite this one actually having origins elsewhere (William Monahan adapts the hugely popular Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs), this is still indelibly Scorsese, but it lacks the class and lofty aspirations of his last two films. That’s not a bad thing – it makes The Departed his most solidly entertaining effort in years, where he puts his immense filmmaking skill to use purely in service of telling a good yarn. It’s a shame that this one is just too long, being the length of a crime epic when this is essentially a small story about a handful of people.
The dynamic premise of Infernal Affairs was of a cop undercover with the triads while his underworld boss has a mole in the police department and the two becoming gradually aware of each other’s existence. Monahan transposes that to the Irish gangs of Boston, led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who is much more prominent than his Infernal counterpart. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the undercover cop, Billy Costigan, again displaying the formidable talent that has developed to the point that he now disappears into his roles, not reminding us of his previous work despite the unfortunate boyishness that he can’t quite shake. Matt Damon plays the duplicitous Colin Sullivan, who has worked for Costello since he was a boy (which seems to be his only motivation for remaining loyal to him, a surprising underdevelopment in a film that takes its time). They’re supported by the kind of amazing cast that Scorsese attracts. Ray Winstone is typically roguish as Nicholson’s right-hand man, Mark Wahlberg wonderfully obnoxious without crossing the line into caricature, Martin Sheen compelling as DiCaprio and Wahlberg’s boss, and Vera Farmiga, who has staked out a prime role for a rising actor and does solid work (unlike most of the civilised world, I remember her from the short-lived Heath Ledger series Roar – she’s come a long way).
And of course, the pairing of Nicholson and Scorsese is a delicious prospect: two defining talents of the 1970s working together for the first time, and they mesh surprisingly well. Nicholson is impressive but doesn’t offer anything particularly new, as he did in About Schmidt. But then he’s long been an actor who can get away with presence alone. He offers a lot of arresting moments, as the film does overall, but the narrative meanders. It’s rare for me to look at my watch during a film, and even rarer to be shocked at how much time remained. If The Departed was trimmed by half an hour, the DVD would feature some of the strongest deleted scenes on the format, but they still don’t necessarily need to be in the film. Perhaps it’s a script problem, but the premise of The Departed doesn’t demand an epic length, and in affording it one the power of Scorsese’s film is diluted, which is an unusual thing to say.
Repeat viewing may reveal this to be an experience whose richness continues to entrance to the point where time concerns may vanish, but at this point, The Departed feels like an indulgent end result. But if it finally earns Scorsese that Best Director Oscar, I’ll be cheering, as it should at last be his in principle alone, and he would earn it for The Departed since it is an example of his superior craftsmanship. Shame it wasn’t for The Aviator or one of his many prior classics. And if audiences lap up the efficient work of a master as they would other mainstream fare, that’s great too. The Departed is flawed, but it’s a long, long way from ‘bad’.