The Departed Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM

    The Departed Review
    Scorsese's second remake confounded me at the flicks, not because of its tricksy, labyrinthine plot - I've seen it all before in its infinitely superior original version, Infernal Affairs - but because it just came across as pure pantomime. Over-the-top performances from the acting heavyweights and some incredibly lousy screenwriting that just made fools of the others in the cast left me bewildered as to why The Departed had been hailed as another classic from the highly-revered director. In my opinion it was one of the biggest disappointments of last year and a film that I really had no desire to sit through again. However, that blessed condition was not to be as, alas, this new Blu-ray release has sought me out to take another shot at the title. So, here we go, folks, this is my take on one of the most unnecessary remakes that I've ever seen.

    The catchy, novel concept has two covert informers playing cat-and-mouse with each other amid the dangerous Boston underworld. One is an undercover cop called Billy Costigan (an on-fire Leonardo DiCaprio), who has infiltrated the Irish crime syndicate run by top-of-the-police-hit-list Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The other, Colin Sullivan is a deep-rooted mob-mole who has been planted not only within the police force, but the very team who have been assigned to bring Costello down. Played by Matt Damon, Sullivan seems, on the surface, to have landed the easy job. He can keep his real boss informed of any heat coming his way, whilst still doing a good enough job to keep earning kudos from his superiors on the right side of the law. Costigan, though, not only has to gain the trust of the wise guys - which is a dangerous thing on its own - but watch his back for either trigger-happy cops or his cover being rumbled and the dire consequences that that would entail. It is no surprise, then, that poor Billy's life becomes as mixed-up as the double-dealing, backstabbing world that he playacts his way through, with many difficult situations developing and his conscience stretched to breaking point.

    Brad Pitt bought the rights to the original film a while ago, with a view to starring in it himself. Now, he seems content to settle for a producer's role and to allow two of the hottest new generation of actors to battle it out for screen supremacy. Damon has proved his worth as a determined and ruthlessly efficient killer in the excellent Bourne movies, though in The Departed he brings his wisecracking, all-too-cocky persona to the fore to essay an intelligent and manipulative two-face who can steadily pull the wool over the eyes of his superiors, gain the trust of loyal minions and seemingly orchestrate daring last-minute saves with the apparent luck of the devil. But, tellingly, he is only as clever or as confident as his real boss ever allows him to be. Sadly though, despite Damon's efforts, the rogue cop never gains any of our sympathies or, quite catastrophically, ever hits the gas in terms of suspense or aggression. We always know his background and his allegiances, yet we never fear his potential in such a position of power.

    DiCaprio, on the other hand, is simply marvellous in the role of the soul-stricken undercover man - a guy who is forced to participate in a variety of savage and nefarious deeds just to keep his bogus hand in with the mob. The moral and mental descent that his blighted cop undergoes is brilliantly portrayed by an actor who has completely shaken off the dull-as-dishwater pretty-boy romanticism from the likes of Romeo And Juliet and Titanic. Scorsese saw something vital and ferocious in him that he could mould for the likes of Gangs Of New York, and something playful and duplicitous for his canny performance in The Aviator. But here, DiCaprio finds an inner rage that is tremendous to watch, particularly as his lost-and-morally-adrift rozzer begins to crack under the pressure. DiCaprio has an unexpectedly brooding intensity with which he can inject spasms of emotional flack on the flip of a coin. Full of nervous ticks and blazing out of red-rimmed, neurotic eyes, he cuts a clammy, jittery, climb-the-walls hair-trigger hero with seriously crossed-wires. He's Martin Riggs with the badge stripped away and the psychosis piled on extra-thick. And he can handle the violence of his role with a decidedly assured fist and foot combination. Billy's awesome deck-the-douche-bags-in-the-delhi routine is a clear standout. Check out the blood and snot flying from the hood's stoved-in face and from Billy's mashed knuckles as he pounds them home again and again. DiCaprio's cop has a lean, mean, over-the-edge personality that makes him difficult to root for, yet the one that we applaud once he gets stuck in. This hard re-imagining of his cinematic persona has even carried on with his great performance in the searing Blood Diamond, marking him out as a dangerously versatile actor who can defiantly surprise and amaze.

    But, my admiration for Scorsese's bloated, yet all rather futile, epic stops right there, I'm afraid.

    Two major factors ruin this film for me. Firstly, the performances from Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson, which are just so unbelievable in the context of a supposedly gritty, realistic urban drama that I find it hard to comprehend what Scorsese had in mind when he hired them. The sooner Damon gets back into Jason Bourne's shoes, the better. As Colin (a hoodlum called Colin!!) he is just too confident, too cocksure and self-aware to be taken seriously as an actor slipping into a role. He is wearing the high drama of the part much too openly, elevating his criminal mole with a brazen hero-boy domination as bright as neon. One scene, early on, really annoys me and epitomises his performance throughout The Departed. It is the moment set in a fairly crowded lift as Colin puts the moves on Vera Farmiga's psychologist in possibly the most totally un-credible fashion imaginable. With that play-dough face of his gurning so toothily at her it's a wonder she didn't just burst into hysterics. Damon's much too goofy and youthful for his toe-headed impostor to cut it in the environment in which he is supposed to be operating. Likewise, his lovey-dovey scenes are purely squirm-inducing and totally preposterous to behold. The confidence that he exudes in such scenes is so overboard that it beggars belief and plays havoc with the moral crux of the tale. Yeah, DiCaprio's stooge is having a lousy time posing as a bad guy, but that shouldn't equate so colossally with his opposite's ball playing the good guy. Damon just can't make such a juxtaposition stick.

    But he isn't only the main fly in the ointment. Oh no ... not by a long way.

    Nicholson, I'm afraid, has gone too far now, as far as I'm concerned. The ego he stamps all over this film just completely transforms the story from thriller to pure pantomime. Let's put it this way - there is simply no way on earth that his crime-boss character could ever exist on the streets and have gotten away with it for a day, let alone a lifetime ... no matter what revelations may come to pass. Overblown, over-the-top and far too over-the-hill to be taken seriously, Mad Jack dumps on the movie beneath him in the false assumption that because he is in it, he owns it. Folks, I am getting sick of hearing about how powerful his presence is in this film - he's a jester, nothing more! His Frank Costello is the true Clown Prince Of Crime, not the Joker from the Burton's Batman. Having the role considerably beefed-up from the original certainly allows Scorsese to deviate from the template set down by Andrew Lau and his screenwriters Alan Mak and Felix Chong, and was probably a good idea on paper. But to then hand it to Nicholson and just point a camera at him is directorial stupidity writ large. Every damn scene he is in is trounced upon and stripped of tension, tone and credibility by a man so enamoured with his own persona that he can flaunt characterisation so callously in order to just play himself ... again. I won't deny that Nicholson is a great actor, but the man has disappeared so far up his own grandiose backside that he seems to think he is honouring any production that he appears in. No actor should ever be bigger than the role they are playing, or the film they are in. And that goes for my favourites, too. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe may often tower above the screenplays they are working from, but they steadfastly do it for the betterment of the film. I reviewed the critically lambasted Reign Of Fire recently and that is a clear case of Bale lifting a lesser product out of the doldrums by sheer investment in character - but not for his own benefit and sense of status like Nicholson does, he does it solely for that of the film. Nicholson, much too often these days, just showboats for himself and, admittedly, he has a right old time of it, too. But this attitude and style, in my opinion - and I don't doubt for a second that there are those who would vociferously argue with me on this - swamps the movie. And, with an ensemble piece such as The Departed, this can have an even more calamitous effect - such as encouraging the rest of the cast, who are clearly in awe of him, to actually attempt to up their own game in an attempt to reach his supposedly sky-high standards, which just ends up taking the film out of the realm of the riveting and into that of the risible. Sorry, folks, but Jack Nicholson was the worst choice for the role of Costello that I can think of. Well, okay, Joe Pasquale would hardly have been any better ... but you catch my drift.

    The other basic ingredient that has been botched on a fundamental level is the screenplay itself. In the original, the twisted personas and motivational switcheroos were totally in-keeping with a tone that was deeply concerned with tense moral dilemmas and the ever-present risk of one or the other inside-man being found out. In The Departed, the scenario is made all the more preposterous by having a couple of completely illogical and narrow-minded Keystone Cop-alikes running the investigation. Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg are having a laugh, aren't they? Their covert operation is so locked-down that it simply beggars belief how an undercover agent is supposed to do his job. I understand the necessity for a need to know basis, but the contrivance of leaving Billy Costigan virtually on his own except for these two dimwits just takes the proverbial out of any deep cover mission. On the face of it Infernal Affairs may seem equally flawed by having only one other cop know of the agent's identity, but it is all about the handling of the situation and the emphasis placed on the pair's mutual understanding, and the original beats The Departed's catalogue of clandestine meetings with a much better grasp of the inherent dangers and a much tighter pace. Plus, Tony Leung's police mole is much more believable in his Triad infiltration because he has been undercover for ten years. Billy Costigan's indoctrination into the mob's inner circle is practically set on Warp Factor 10! We get a slight mention, as things proceed, of the fact that he has been involved with Costello for about a year but this barely registers with the hodgepodge of events and incredible contrivances that pile up ad-nauseam. And with basic narrative elements such as these so fatally wounded it hardly seems worthwhile commenting on the remake's rather lame attempts to shoehorn in a nervous breakdown and the suspense-sapping involvement of Farmiga's police shrink. Sadly, although she does well, the role is a thankless and ultimately useless one. A lot of time is spent on her apparent development and her dubious relationships with both Colin and Billy but, in the end, like so many of the occurrences and characters in The Departed, it all amounts to squat.

    However, things do brighten up with some of the supporting roles. It is nice to see Ray Winstone throwing his weight around on the mean streets of Scorsese's Boston and he adjusts to the role and setting with considerable ease, although his accent is a little dodgy. He has a great way of just sitting there with a vaguely stunned look upon his jowly, whiskered chops that can't fail to endear him to you ... in a perverse sort of way. And Mark Wahlberg has a fine time heaving obscenities left, right and centre in a role that he takes as seriously as DiCaprio does with his. The script is rife with the type of garrulous drivel so outrageously aware of its own quote-heavy quality that you can imagine the writer, William Monahan, chuckling to himself as he types it. Goodfellas and Casino had incredible dialogue that may have been patently overboard but was always fun to listen to, but The Departed's expletive-heavy vernacular is laden with pseudo-speeches and gutter-savvy lines, from Nicholson mainly, that go so far beyond the possibilities of what a normal human brain and tongue could co-operate in creating that you wonder how many cuts editor Thelma Schoonmaker had to incorporate before they sounded half-way realistic. Folks, I normally place a few quotes around my reviews but to do so with The Departed would just be a blasphemy. I may as well just put “He's behind you!” in big inverted commas at the top of the page because the film script doesn't go any further in natural-sounding astute verbal observation.

    By contrast, the cinematography by Scorsese-regular Michael Ballhaus, is typically scintillating. Whereas Michael Mann paints his urban milieus with a neon-bathed surrealism, Scorsese has Ballhaus paint his cities with a grubby intimacy that is as foreboding as it is engrossing. This may not be as glitzy as Goodfellas or as roguishly enticing as Gangs Of New York, but The Departed still issues a visual invitation that is difficult to resist. Howard Shore's score is smart and tense when it can nudge its way into the soundtrack - the tense, shadow-drenched pursuit through the back alleys of Chinatown is a pure standout. But however slick and well put-together The Departed may be, it can't hide the fact that the film is ultimately hollow and all rather pointless. Scorsese lit a fire under the gangster genre and it still continues to burn with his own unique style, but he has played it safe this time out and squandered a lot of talent and effort in bringing to the screen a story that didn't need re-working or re-locating in the first place. Constantly overrated, the filmmaker has produced a woefully superfluous movie that seems to be pulling the wool over many critics' eyes. Bolstered by one terrific performance, DiCaprio's, in a film that boasted so much acting potential, I can only sum up by stating that The Departed should join its title and go away as quickly as possible ... Oscars be damned.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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