Boston gangster Frank Costello puts his gun to the back of a woman’s head, pulls the trigger in the nonchalant manner with which he’d light a cigarette and, as she stumbles over her husband’s already-murdered corpse, casually reports, “She fell funny”. Obscene and dangerously insane, Costello is the driving force powering The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s return to his urban roots after a decade of period pieces. Then, he is played by Jack Nicholson. This marks the first teaming of America’s premier cinematic dynamos.
Working from a script by William Monahan (Kingdom Of Heaven), which transfers to Boston’s underworld the plot of hit Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, Scorsese has crafted a story that uses the same premise but feels like an entirely different beast. New or beefed up characters — notably the significantly enhanced role of Nicholson’s Costello compared to Eric Tsang’s Sam — will leave even fans of the original guessing exactly how events will unfold.
The set-up certainly draws out the best in a cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, that’s probably unused to working in someone else’s shadow. Then, this is Jack Nicholson. DiCaprio is Billy Costigan, the cop working his way inside Costello’s gang; Damon is Colin Sullivan, the criminal’s protégé groomed from a young age to become a police mole, leaking information from inside the force.
In balancing his leading men against each other, Scorsese isn’t aiming for his usual criminal anthropology, painting a roots-up picture of Boston’s criminal world akin to GoodFellas’ New York. His focus is on trust and betrayal — how a man can keep his own identity when forced to live a life that is not his own. And DiCaprio and Damon counterbalance each other perfectly, managing (as Tony Leung and Andy Lau did in the original) to offer a compelling case study of two sides of the same coin, enemies defined by the same dilemma.
Police detective Sullivan at first appears supremely comfortable in the role he plays. As he climbs up the hierarchy of Boston’s police — and assembles what outwardly resembles a normal life — Sullivan manages to position himself so that he’s part of the task force put together to, of all things, catch Costello. The flipside is Costigan, a recently graduated cop whose family has loose ties to the Mob — which makes him the perfect informant to plant inside Costello’s gang. Alone, and avowing such bad blood doesn’t run in his veins, Costigan accepts a mission that will finally bring out a violent heritage he can’t stem. Comfortable with Scorsese after Gangs Of New York and The Aviator, DiCaprio gets the toughest role and delivers: his Billy Costigan is vitalised by a sense of panic and desperation that makes him more likeable than Damon, who is burdened with the more hypocritical part — Sullivan can’t hide from himself the fact that he’s a bad apple who lives on opportunities, not merits.
Yet, for all the youthful talent (and we also get Mark Wahlberg to bolster the film’s young-leaning credentials), The Departed belongs to Nicholson and Frank Costello, a man of unpredictable nature who doesn’t simply like violence, he is so steeped in it that it’s as natural as breathing. It’s hard to say which of his words came from Monahan’s script and which were added by the actor, who, in familiar fashion, gives the character as much leery charm as genuine danger, using fear (be it physical, verbal or sexual) as a tool to get precisely what he wants. In the course of a single phone conversation with Sullivan, he turns Damon’s character from alpha male to subservient puppy in a matter of moments. Then, he is Jack Nicholson. And when ‘Jack’ threatens to go over the top — and sometimes the actor’s too much for even himself to handle — Scorsese steps in to rap the back of his hand and keep the narrative firmly rooted in reality.
When it comes to the dynamics of filmmaking, Scorsese still has few peers — an elevator shoot-out in the third act could easily be this year’s tensest scene. The Departed is a sort of time machine: it recalls the richness and moral ambiguity of Hollywood’s ’70s, presenting stories about real people absent of turn-of-the-millennium concerns. They curse, have sex, lie, fight — and sometimes die horribly. This is a superbly crafted movie that holds its own alongside, say, Serpico and The French Connection, with their amoral characters and intense, realistic action. Yet, despite its many layers, the director clearly has no ambition to break new ground. The surprising moments of humour that leaven the story suggest that he’s having fun with a film that puts him back on the mean streets, but with no intention of detailing the cogs of the criminal world. It’s not GoodFellas or Casino, but, frankly, it doesn’t have to be. He’s got Jack Nicholson.