This was a film that crept up on me; I had no idea it was being made, its background, who was involved…the first I heard of it was when I saw the ‘so poor I felt a bit sorry for it’ Black Dahlia and caught the trailer. I knew absolutely nothing about it and saw it on a vague whim, because I felt that The Queen and Clerks 2 could probably wait until DVD. And I’m glad I did, because The Departed turned out to be one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
The film tells the story of two rookie cops, one from a seedy background (Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) who is sent undercover to infiltrate the Irish Mob (led by Frank Costello, Jack Nicholson), and the other from a well-to-do background (Colin Sullivan, Matt Damon) who reports to Costello but is also a respected detective within the police force. As the police repeatedly attempt to bring down the mob, and both groups begin to realise they’ve been compromised, Costigan and Sullivan have to uncover the identity of the other before they get exposed themselves.
Unlike the last murder mystery I saw (Dahlia), what Scorsese delivers here is a tense game of cat-and-mouse — it’s well-paced, well-shot, well-scripted; the entire affair is, and I use this word rarely, perfect. Can you imagine two people on the phone not talking to each other could be one of the most heart-stopping moments in the entire film? Scorsese pulls it off, not just in one scene but again and again, mixing gallows humour at appropriate moments, usually delivered by Nicholson who seems to be having a wonderful time.
Although the presence of highly-established and charismatic actors — Jack Nicholson on top devilish form, the chubbily-likeable Martin Sheen, the dependable senior Baldwin brother — certainly helps, The Departed is also full of actors who I keep forgetting can act; Mark Wahlberg, who I still think of as Marky Mark of ‘And The Funky Bunch’ fame; Matt Damon, who I keep on mixing up with the dismal Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who, despite demonstrating right from the beginning in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that he’s a consummate professional, now has a permanent association in my mind with the ball-achingly awful Titanic. My perception of these people is unfair, granted, but it does mean I’m routinely impressed by their work instead of taking them for granted, and they are all endlessly entertaining here.
Even the soundtrack is flawless; The Rolling Stones, the Dropkick Murphys, Van Morrison (performing a haunting cover of Comfortably Numb that blends perfectly with the on-screen action), The Beach Boys, Patsy Cline and John Lennon all turn up, sometimes more than once — do I need to expand upon this, or does that list say it all?
Scorcese has had a little bit of a time lately, with the so-so Gangs of New York and The Aviator tarnishing his reputation. Is The Departed another Goodfellas? Well…not quite, but it’s certainly an excellent film and has helped to remind us what the man can do when he puts his mind to it. My only criticism is that the way the film ends felt a little weak, a little bit ‘will this do?’, as if they ran out of ideas and needed to tidy it all up in a hurry. But for the preceeding two and a half hours of smoothly-filmed, tightly-scripted tension, I can overlook this.