the departed (2006)

Yes, without further ado, I announce that the first great film of 2006 has finally arrived. One of my all-time favorite directors, Martin Scorsese, has pulled out all the stops to deliver a fantastic gangster film as only he could craft. It's the kick we needed to pull this year out of the doldrums and give us a reason to go to the theater again. The film in question, The Departed, ranks easily with his past classics, such as Goodfellas, and it also happens to be the best film of the year so far. So, allow me to elaborate on just how Mr. Scorsese wowed me this time around...

Well, basically he does it by the simplest means possible; he just has fun. He kicks back, without the slightest hint of pretension, and makes one of the good ol' fashioned gangster flicks he's become so famous for. For years now it's been the running joke that Scorsese, one of the best directors of our time, has never been honored with an oscar. Scorsese says this doesn't bother him, but his past few films seem to disagree. With his last two, 2002's Gangs of New York and 2004's The Aviator, Scorsese seemed to be leaning in the oscar bait direction, he seemed as though he was trying to impress people. With The Departed, all of that need for recognition has completely fallen away. Scorsese is making his kind of picture and he's having a blast. It shows in every frame. While not up to his highest potential (this is no Raging Bull) there's a feeling that the aspiration to achieve that kind of greatness was never there. This film weaves its web all in the name of an entertaining and powerful experience, and that's exactly what we get. For those that aren't aware, this film is actually a re-make of the 2002 Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs. I've never seen that film so I can't really say how the two rank in a comparison, but as a stand-alone film The Departed scores big time. All-star acting talent, some tense direction and a well-executed script are the ingredients on display here, and who could ask for more? Hey, certainly not me. The film sets up a world on two sides, the cops and the criminals. The Asian influences in the film's core themes become apparent right off the bat as this is really a tale of the yin and the yang. It's a story of good and evil being two sides of the same coin, each being personified by Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon. Where Scorsese goes right is in promoting that theme well and also telling his extremely layered story all at the same time. It's a melding of thematic and story sense that we don't often see and, again, it's quite refreshing. Dicaprio plays a well-off kid who joins the state police. Instead of donning the uniform, he's picked for an extremely dangerous job of infiltrating Boston's mob and incriminating the city's top mob boss, Frank Costello. Costello is played fantastically by Jack Nicholson, whose off key and downright odd take on the crime lord spices up every scene he's in. On the other side of the spectrum is Matt Damon as a young member of Costello's crew. He's picked to infiltrate the state police and give the mob an operative inside the police force. This, of course, sets up for a fantastically interesting antithesis as Dicaprio lives Damon's life and vice versa. The two characters walk on either side of the mirror which provides the film's major dramatic conflict. There have been countless cop films in which a character is forced to go undercover and live life under false pretenses, but the psychological effects have never been dealt with quite like this. It's a fantastic premise and where the film goes from there is even better. A director with a bit less skill and a lot less finesse could have easily lost their grip on the complex chain of events and this script would've come off as a convoluted mess. However, Scorsese keeps it all in check and we, the audience, respond to his every whim. 

I don't have to praise the direction any more than I already have, but I'll go ahead and do it anyway. Scorsese takes this flick all the way. The guy's smack in the middle of his sixties, but you'd never know it. He directs this one with all the vigor and excitement of his youth. Heck, I thought this one was more in the spirit of his debut, Mean Streets than in the spirit of Goodfellas. The only thing that bothered me was his constant cutting. From someone as classically trained as Scorsese, I was hoping for a few long takes and static shots to really take in. The film is visceral and tense, and the editing works wonders for it, but I wouldn't have minded if it had slowed down a bit in some areas. His crane shots of the winding staircase that enters the police offices are far too short and don't really do justice by how good they could have looked if we'd seen them for longer. His composition, however, is great as always and when it comes to the film's real set-pieces (like Dicaprio's pursuit of Damon in Chinatown) Scorsese couldn't have done better as far as I'm concerned. This film is a prime example of creating great suspense and excitement without the need of cheap action sequences to fill in the gaps in your story. Scorsese creates his tension the old fashioned way with solid filmmaking as this time-bomb of a film ticks away to a crescendo that will drop your jaw. Seriously. One thing the script, and Scorsese, really has fun with is showing the scum and the rats that lurk around every corner in this gritty world they've set up. The disdain for the police force as an establishment comes through loud and clear as Alec Baldwin gleefully praises the Patriot Act and their ability to easily invade Costello's private affairs. The cops are presented as fools for the most part, unable to detect the rats in their own organization and always looking for a promotion rather than justice. Only those who take the law into their own hands are regarded as heroes in The Departed. That's the world Scorsese builds for us and I'll be damned if it's not an enticing one. The rest of the script is simply top-notch with great developments at every turn and some of the best dialogue I've heard all year. It also keeps a good handle on the can of worms it constantly opens and never seems as though it's nervously running out of ideas. This film demonstrates control in just about every aspect. The acting of course, leaves little to be desired as Scorsese directs Dicaprio to yet another surprisingly good performance. Hey, he was my favorite character in the film. Damon also does a good job though his character really isn't given too much out of the ordinary to do until the film's climax. Nicholson, as always, succeeds on just about all of his 8 million attempts to steal the show. You just cant take your eyes off this guy when he's onscreen, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but hey. The film picks up speed and won't let you down until the very end. The run time is about 2 and 1/2 hours, but it's gripping for just bout all of it so I doubt anyone will mind. I could have done without the very, very final scene (as in the last 30 seconds of the film).

Yeah, this film is not too shabby, in fact, it's great. Scorsese continues to impress in a career that's far from over. He will once again team with new muse Dicaprio to tell the story of FDR for his next project. Obviously I'm going to be there opening day. For now, we have one more reminder of the fact that there's still a few auteurs out there in the cinema world today. I happily say that I can guarantee The Departed a slot on my top 10 list for this year, and I'm looking forward to the last few months of the year with the hopes that that list will be able to grow.