The Departed Review

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)


Watching the sprawling, brawling, caterwauling would-be epic The Departed, I couldn't help feeling like a witness to the Wright Brothers' first powered flight: stunned that they actually got such a lumbering beast to magically take flight, dazzled by the flight itself, yet disappointed that it flew only 120 feet.

So it is with The Departed. While it's in flight, balancing all the star power of its cast and director, it's a magnificent thing to watch.

The spell lasts through much of its running time, before it begins to fall back to earth. As the end credits rolled, I found myself disappointed that the film didn't go far enough to be truly satisfying.

Strained metaphors aside, there are ample pleasures to be enjoyed. Martin Scorsese's direction is energizing and intimate. He indulges in one short POV traveling shot early on, then concentrates on framing shots to be as unintrusive as possible.

From time to time you become aware of extended close-ups jostling with compositions that clearly establish the environment, but for the most part he stays out of the way, save for a few tricks that are tossed in occasionally like hidden candy. Rather than filling the soundtrack with wall to wall rock songs, he judiciously mixes snippets from a variety of songs with Howard Shore's score, which only makes itself known near the end.

William Monahan's script is jam-packed with crackling dialogue and nuanced storytelling. It is notable that the story is structured in a markedly different way than Alan Mak and Felix Chong's original work for Infernal Affairs; truth be told, The Departed also adapts material from Infernal Affairs II and Infernal Affairs III.

Instead of simply "Americanizing" the whiplash twists and turns of the original Hong Kong police thriller, which generated terrific tension in its first 30 minutes, the filmmakers used the material as inspiration for making a juicy, straightforward crime epic in which the characters are painted in varied shades of grey.

Scorsese and company set the film in Boston and further the notion that the city is still a seething hotbed of racial, cultural, and sexual insensitivities, at least among all the cops and criminals depicted. The insults and trash talk spill out of their mouths like an overfilled ashtray.

Springing forth from the riots of the 1960s as some sort of criminal mastermind is the dastardly Frank Costello. As overplayed by Jack Nicholson, Costello is more of a badly-dressed goofy relative than a mob boss. Sure, he can be ruthless and coldblooded, but most of the time he's Jack Nicholson trying to vary how he chew ups the scenery in scene after scene. You could make the argument that the garish outfits and scatterbrained antics are an outer disguise that a very smart criminal would put on to make the police believe he has lost his mind, but in a brief exchange with two cops he sounds more sane than he does with his own crew -- or girlfriend.

Nicholson is very entertaining, but he's only sporadically believable as a Mafia kingpin.

That brings us to the other characters, and here is where I must delve into spoiler territory to explain why the film ultimately failed to satisfy.


I tried to put aside my very favorable feelings about Infernal Affairs so that I could experience The Departed with an open mind as its own artistic entity. In many ways, it is quite a successful and ambitious film. But in the same way that Nicholson was never entirely convincing as Frank Costello, I had problems with some of the other characters and story decisions.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy, the cop who's undercover in Costello's mob, and Matt Damon is Colin, his counterpart as the criminal who's undercover in the police force. Vera Farmiga is Madolyn, a psychiatrist and Colin's eventual fiancee who is also treating Billy. (The role is a composite of the Sammi Cheng/Kelly Chen parts in the original.)

DiCaprio's Billy is a very angry young man with a tortured upbringing. He wants to chart a new path, and resents being recruited as a perfect candidate to go undercover as a criminal. On the other hand, he comes across as self-righteous and selfish rather than someone genuinely interested in catching the bad guys. Instead of being a tortured soul haunted by being forced to do something he hates, fearful of turning into something he's not, he sounds like a whiner who doesn't want to die and doesn't like other people to tell him what to do.

Initially Damon's Colin appears to be a glad-handing smooth operator, and it's conceivable that he could be quickly promoted. As things progress, Colin regresses, becoming an overmatched weasel, and he loses entirely control of his universe. He's not forceful or commanding, he's loud, annoying, and cowardly. Why would he keep being promoted at such a young age?

Despite her lean and willowy frame, Farmiga's Madolyn emotes a lovely balance of strength and kindness. It's easy to see why both Colin and Billy would be attracted to her. But that presents its own problems, because why would someone with a sense of fair play and morality so readily cheat on her boyfriend with little apparent reason? Yes, I know it's "Leo!" but her character is set up as having the ability to look past appearances, so her actions make her look -- excuse the expression -- slutty and not very sympathetic.

Beyond the character flaws, the concluding scenes -- based to a large extent upon the original -- simply don't fit with what's come before, causing some in the audience to laugh at cheap melodrama, instead of being moved by what should be a tragedy.

And the last shot -- oh, brother.

None of these reservations will keep me from watching the film multiple times. It's just that the opening sequences promise that a criminal epic will be forthcoming, and it's more than disappointing to see it fall short. It didn't push the boundaries far enough to fulfill its promise and truly satisfy the craving it created.

In the end, The Departed was better than I expected but not as good as I hoped.

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