After a brief dalliance with aviation and Bob Dylan, super-director Martin Scorsese has returned to his first love: organized crime. This time it's the Irish that are up to no good in The Departed, his remake of the Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs.
Starring is Matt Damon as Colin, a stiff Massachusetts State Trooper with a hidden agenda. He's a mole, working for Boston's top gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Colin's a worker and he rises through the State Police ranks rapidly, tipping off Costello at every stop along the way. But there's a problem. He's not the only rat in the picture. The Trooper's have their own mole, an undercover officer working deep inside Costello's organization. His name is Billy Costigan, and he's played with vicious desperation by Marty's favorite son Leonardo DiCaprio. It's not long before everyone figures out they've been compromised, and the shit hits the fan as both rats on either side of the law scramble to find and take out each other.
At the center of everything is Nicholson's Costello; a magnetic, hands-on mob boss with a gift for dispensing neighborhood wisdom and brain-smashing bullets with equal exuberance. It's Costello who sets the tone of the film when he asks a younger version of Colin to identify the difference between cops and criminals. Costello's answer is simply this: "When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" Maybe there is no difference, but The Departed goes looking for one anyway.
What it finds instead are a lot of similarities. The movie spends most of its running time trying to get inside Billy and Colin's head as both work at the same problem from surprisingly similar positions. Both come from troubled family backgrounds, were raised on the same side wrong of town, have connections somewhere in the past to Costello, and let's face it, they're both fantastic liars. One's a cop, one's only pretending to be a cop, but is there any difference?
It's driven by great performances, which Marty gets from every member of his cast. DiCaprio is desperate and tortured as Costigan, and Damon shines as the stiff and sometimes pompous turncoat Colin. Nicholson does his usual, which means he steals every scene he's in. He's charming even when he's blowing a guy's brain out of his ear. Jack does seem to have a little trouble pulling off an Irish accent, but he's otherwise so arresting that his inability to play Irish is completely forgivable.
For most of its running time, The Departed is an absolutely fascinating exploration, a mix of all kinds of different genres. It's a thriller, a cop procedural, a character drama, and more all rolled into one. Exactly the sort of complexity you'd expect from a Scorsese movie. What I didn't expect from a Scorsese movie was a copout ending, but that's what we're left with.
After spending 140 minutes sucking his audience in with an engrossing story about blurring the lines between the law and the lawless, The Departed drops the ball and takes the easy way out in the last 9. Maybe if the rest of the film hadn't sucked me in so totally I wouldn't have minded, but a story with this much complication deserves a payoff. It's almost as if at some point the whole thing simply became too complicated for a proper up, and rather than find a way to deliver the script simply nukes everything and roles the credits. What a mess. The Departed isn't just a name, apparently it's the movie's motto.
Despite the film's last act misstep, the movie's worth watching just for the journey. Scorsese remains a master, and he's working his finest magic here. He refuses to fall into the usual pitfalls of the gangster drama, and continues to find completely new nuances in genres that others have already mined nearly to death. Cops versus killers has been done to the point of improbability, but in front of Marty's lens it's a brand new game. It's not quite the masterpiece that some of this other recent films like The Aviator and Bringing Out the Dead have been, but The Departed is a work of strong vision and sharp personality.