The Departed (2006): Scorsese Returns to the Mean Streets, but Gimme Shelter from Jack!

The Departed opens as all Martin Scorsese movies will open, when you die and watch them on that big silver screen in the sky.

The Rolling Stones are on the soundtrack, Scorsese is back on the mean streets with his steadicam, waltzing around his characters in soda shops and chop shops, while the infernal Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) dispenses his hard-won philosophy to the audience.

Nicholson isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you think of Scorsese collaborators, but the style and language of these opening frames are so seductive and reassuring that you instantly recognize it as Scorsese’s territory.  It’s a pulse raising opening, and instantly recalls the early scenes of Goodfellas.
As much as we all admire Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, the eccentric ambition of Gangs of New York and the glossy Aviator, I think when it comes down to it, when we sit down in a darkened room to watch a new Scorsese movie, we all want the same thing. We want to be transformed and transported for a few hours; we want to feel special again, the way we all felt when we first watched Goodfellas.

There’s been a notable backlash against Goodfellas recently.  However, for sheer headrush of eclectic soundtrack, awesome performances, audacious editing and persuasive directing, it takes a lot of beating as cinema as sensation, as an experience.

And The Departed starts with something similar – a young lad seduced by the larger-than-life characters of his neighborhood’s underworld, and the drama that will unfold from his relationship with these criminals.Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) meets Costello at an early age – clearly daunted by this dangerous man as he collects his protection money from a soda shop owner. He still pays a visit on the big man’s suggestions, and is taken into the family.  Next thing, we see Sullivan as a fully grown Matt Damon, a police officer working towards promotion in the Special Investigations Unit.

At this point, we only suspect Sullivan is on Costello’s pay roll, and is actually working for the crime boss as a mole.  Meanwhile, Billy Costigan’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) superiors in the Police force have another role in mind, being a young man from a poor background, whose family has a history of crime. Because of his family’s criminal ties, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) considers him a perfect undercover police officer – a few months in jail to make it look good, and nobody’s going to ask any questions.

The rest of the film follows the two men – unknown to each other – as they gradually infiltrate their respective organizations. Both are intimately familiar with Costello, one trying to protect him, the other trying to gather enough evidence to send him down.Fans of the original Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs won’t need telling, as the storyline is fairly faithful to the original.

Some eyebrows were raised about Scorsese’s decision to remake such an esteemed Asian classic, but those people seemed to forget the director has done remakes previously.  His Cape Fear fleshed out the respected original potboiler, adding many extra layers of sexuality, infidelity and ambiguity to the sweaty plotline.

In The Departed, Scorsese remains faithful to the original while also building in his own nuances – influence of religion being one of them – and fleshing out his characters in a tough Boston environment.

His grip on the material is as tight as it’s ever been; there’s a lot of information being presented in this movie, and Scorsese is able to keep it simple, often with just a few choice cuts to show us all we need to know.

Double cross stories can be confusing at the best of times, and it’s testament to Scorsese’s mastery of the medium that you’re never puzzled about who’s doing what, when or where, and what their motivation is.

Scorsese is also assisted by a fantastic cast – Nicholson, Damon, DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winston – all making the most (in one case, too much) of their allotted time on screen.

Like Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, Scorsese knows how to change with the times, and build his team with the best of what’s available. He also knows how to build a team around his star player. For years, Scorsese’s “Captain” was De Niro, who was central to everything he did – Mean StreetsRaging Bull, King of Comedy, etc. There were many other great actors in those movies, but it was De Niro at the center holding it all together.

When that collaboration tailed off in the Nineties, presumably because De Niro became a parody of himself, Scorsese found himself a new Captain – Leonardo DiCaprio.
DiCaprio, building on his early promise of  What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Romeo and Juliet, survived the early heartthrob image and matured into one of today’s best actors. DiCaprio, I think, is one of the most naturally gifted actors  – at first, you think, “Oh look! It’s Leonardo”, but then his onscreen presence is so effortless that you forget his acting; once that happens, he just draws you into the character.

Scorsese has collaborated with DiCaprio on a number of occasions now, and his Billy Costigan in The Departedis another fine performance, and he anchors the film. With his lanky frame and dark rimmed eyes, you can feel the pressure Costigan is under as he tries to do his job and stay alive at the same time.

Matt Damon as Sullivan is also very good – but then Matt Damon usually is. Damon, once again, uses his boyish good looks to his advantage, and, like he did in The Talented Mr Ripley, uses them as a disguise for a dark amoral soul. There’s something queasy watching Damon in these roles where he uses his brilliant smile and easy-going charm to manipulate the people him.

Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Ray Winston make the most of relatively small roles, but standout in supporting cast is Mark Wahlberg’s Staff Sergeant Dingham, an uptight and offensive senior policeman with a rather unfortunate way of dealing with people.

I’ve always had trouble accepting Wahlberg as an actor, with his plain, unremarkable face and strangely effeminate, lispy voice.Here he plays nicely against type as the aggressive, foul mouthed Dingham, who grabs up most of the film’s laughs and also turns out to the the story’s retributive force.

Then there’s Jack Nicholson. He seemed an odd choice for the role of a gangster at first, because despite the number of villains he’s played in the past, there always seems to be something essentially benevolent about Nicholson’s performances.
Like many of the male actors that came to prominence during the 70’s, like Pacino, Hoffman, De Niro and Voight, their careers can be roughly cut into two sections – the Seventies, and Everything Else.
Neither section suggests Jack Nicholson, or Jack, as he later became known is a particularly convincing gangster type – I absolutely loathed him in Prizzi’s Honor, too.
He starts off well in the role of Frank Costello, his best moments lurking in the shadows, frightening and fascinating, repellent and attractive, preying on the people around him.

Then about halfway through the movie, he suddenly turns into The Joker. Here’s Jack playing with a severed hand, and here he is pulling silly faces and funny accents, and look! Jack’s waving a rubber cock around! The performance goes from a controlled portrayal of a dangerous, larger-than-life character, to  a larger-than-life, dangerously uncontrolled performance.

Dangerous, because in such a gripping, assured effort from Scorsese, surrounded by excellent performances, the big exploding charisma in the center of it that is “Jack!” unbalances the whole thing, and makes it distractingly comic when the tension should be really biting.

So – imagine. Scorsese’s got his new team Captain DiCaprio playing his socks off in the middle of the director’s long awaited return to the mean streets. Imagine if it was his old team captain De Niro in the Costello role? That could have been something….

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 08/05/2012, in D, Drama, Film, Movies, Reviews, Thriller and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great post. I’m waiting to see De Niro and Dicaprio together in a Scorsese film. It’s amazing that it hasn’t happened yet.

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