The Departed

5 stars


14th October 2006

"Nothing is given to you in this life, son. You have to take it," leers Jack Nicholson in the opening moments of Martin Scorsese's return to the gangster genre in which he made his name. Make no mistakes, whilst this is hyped as Scorsese's return to his roots, from the opening voice-over on, this is Jack's movie.

Nicholson plays mob boss Frank Costello, the undisputed kingpin of Boston's Irish gangsters. Every second he appears on the screen he oozes power, sex violence and fear, and even when he's not around, his shadow looms large over the rest of the film. The story revolves around two rookie cops, fresh out of the academy and keen to kick start their careers. Fate, however, has very different destinies planned for the duo. Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, groomed by Costello from a young age to be his mole inside the police force. Leo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, whose loose family ties to the underworld make him an ideal choice to go undercover, in order to infiltrate Costello's gang and bring him to justice once and for all.

Much of the dramatic tension comes from the ensuing game of cat and mouse, as Costello begins to suspect that one of his men may be an undercover cop, and tasks Sullivan with finding out the rat's identity. Meanwhile, police chiefs begin to suspect that Costello has an inside man on the force payroll, and task Sullivan with finding the guilty individual.

So far, so complicated, but screenwriter William Monahan does a good job of keeping the action focused and gripping, taking every opportunity to delve into the effects on the psyches of both characters living a double life while never relying solely on the twists and the turns of Hong Kong original, Infernal Affairs. Matt Damon's clean-cut social climber begins to feel the strain as he struggles to unearth the rat in Costello's gang. At the same time, DiCaprio's Billy Costigan has a tough time trying to cling on to his identity as he becomes more and more embroiled in the violent underworld.

The rest of the supporting cast also turn in uniformly terrific performances. Martin Sheen's ageing mentor Queenan and the brilliantly obscene Mark Wahlberg as Sergeant Dignam are Costigan's only points of contact with the police force. On the criminal side, Ray Winstone, occasionally shaky accent aside, does a solid job as Costello's right hand man. The truly outstanding performance, however, is that of Jack Nicholson himself. From the first second he appears on screen, he completely dominates the film. His Frank Costello is a force of nature, at once completely terrifying and undeniably charismatic. All of Nicholson's roles in the past now feel like preparation for this one, from The Shining to his wonderfully OTT Joker in Tim Burton's Batman. Think of every wild story you have ever heard about the debauched, sex-crazed thespian and add it to one of Scorsese's trademark charismatic gangsters. Put simply, this is Jack turned up to eleven.

Still, the big question remains - is this Scorsese back on top form? The short answer is yes. If we're feeling nit-picky, then the cinematography isn't as jaw-droppingly audacious as it was in Goodfellas, and perhaps the last act could have been streamlined a bit more. These are very minor points though, and only serve to show what an impossibly high benchmark Scorsese has set himself with his previous films. All told, The Departed is deserving of a place in the upper ranks of Scorsese's output, not quite up there with Raging Bull and Goodfellas, but easily the equal of Casino and Mean Streets.

This movie has a great soundtrack, an excellent cast, a winning screenplay, and more sporadic bursts of violence than you can shake Joe Pesci at. A definite candidate for movie of the year.

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