My tastes have always been eclectic and perhaps somewhat
strange. Sometimes I will find myself going along with the mainstream,
while other times I'm so far out on a limb that it gets lonely. Back in
2002, I went to see a Hong Kong action film called
INFERNAL AFFAIRS.
Now, I'm not really big on HK action films. When I used to work at the
now defunct Baseline, one of my colleagues was a huge fan of these
movies and would often try to get me to watch them. Well, I would try,
but I somehow couldn't or wouldn't get into the movie. So my even
agreeing to see
INFERNAL AFFAIRS was something of a milestone.

  Imagine my surprise then, when I came out of the screening room
feeling I had seen something powerful and novel. The screenplay was
complex and the performances by the lead actors were engrossing and
moving. When I learned of the inevitable American remake, I was
somewhat distressed because I was sure that it would get lost in
translation. But then, something interesting happened. Of all directors,
Martin Scorsese signed on, and he hired Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt
Damon to star. Suddenly, the project took on a different aura. If nothing
else, I was interested in seeing how Scorsese would handle the material.

  Now to be fair, both Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan
are attempting to distance the idea that their film,
THE DEPARTED,
is a "remake." Whatever they chose to call it,
THE DEPARTED turns
out to be a good movie, but one that falls far short of the original or
of the director's best work.

 
 THE DEPARTED is set in and around Boston. Now, I grew up
in New England and I lived in Boston for seven years, so I think I have
a feel for the city. Despite some location shots and Damon and Mark
Wahlberg getting to use their native accents, the film didn't quite feel
like a Boston movie. To me, it was a New York movie -- and New York
is Scorsese's milieu. I know that Monahan hails from the area, but
somehow, the sense of place didn't quite congeal for me. In the grand
scheme, I suppose it is a small point, but I would hope a film might
evoke some sense of place. It has been a hallmark of Scorsese's work.
When you watch
GOODFELLAS or ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE
ANYMORE
or KUNDUN, he always has managed to ground the film
in a sense of place. Somehow that was missing for me with
THE DEPARTED. (To be fair, most filmmakers seem to be unable
to capture the city. The best attempt remains
THE FRIENDS OF
EDDIE COYLE
.)

  Like its antecedent,
THE DEPARTED centers on two men who
are almost flip sides of the same coin. Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) hails
from a long line of petty crooks. But instead of opting to follow in the
family business, he has his heart set on becoming a state policeman.
For Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), the opposite is the case. Colin is from
a lower middle-class family and he harbors great ambition -- it's not
or nothing that his apartment overlooks the Massachusetts capital
building. Colin wants success, prestige and power and he is willing
to do whatever it takes, including aligning himself with a notorious
underworld figure. And yes, Colin happens to be a state trooper as
well, albeit one in the debt of mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

  Monahan reportedly based the Costello character on notorious
underworld figure Whitey Bulger. That may have been the excuse that
Nicholson needed to take free reign and seemingly do whatever the hell
he wanted to do on screen. A director of Scorsese's stature and talent
should have been able to exert some influence over the actor's wild
antics. Sometimes they are perfectly in character, but other times they
are so over the top they are laughable (and I don't mean that in a good
way). Perhaps many of the other actors were in awe of Nicholson as
well as that may explain why they seem to retreat and almost disappear
completely when he's on screen. The only exceptions are Martin Sheen
and Mark Wahlberg who go toe to toe with Nicholson and emerge
unscathed. (In his other scenes where he delivers scatological diatribes,
Wahlberg is downright awful.)

  If DiCaprio and Damon do not touch the audience in the same
manner that Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Andy Lau do in the original film,
it is not for lack of trying. It was something of genius casting to pair
these two: they share enough of a physical resemblance that it informs
the story. Both are very interior performers and both offer good
performances. DiCaprio actually excels in one scene -- the one in which
he is verbally sparring with a police psychologist (Vera Farmiga).

  When I first saw
THE DEPARTED at a critics screening, there
was a glitch by the projectionist and the first reel played over coming
attractions and advertisements. I had an inkling what was happening
but it did require a second viewing of the film. As much as I wanted
to like the film, it did not hold up as well the second time around. In
contrast, the second time I watched
INFERNAL AFFAIRS on DVD I
was engrossed and noted things I had missed the first time around.

  Scorsese is clearly a master filmmaker but in my opinion, he's
only phoning it in here.
THE DEPARTED is a matter of been there,
done that. Second tier Scorsese is still good, it just doesn't rank up
there with his best work.


                  
Rating:                B-
                  
MPAA Rating:      R
                  
Running time:     151 mins.
                  
The Departed
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.