A Scorcese masterpiece
By Lady Liberty
*** 1/2 out of ****
Okay, I confess: I think Jack Nicholson is just about the best actor who ever lived. I've also been just a little in love with him since seeing his stellar performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. That being said, I'm also going to have to admit I've been disappointed with a couple of his recent films. Still, between enticing previews and early critical praise for Nicholson's latest, there was little doubt I'd find myself buying a ticket for The Departed this weekend.
The Departed opens with some brief background from Boston — its class clashes, ethnic enclaves, and its growing pains in the era of civil rights protests — and then dives right into the police training being received by two young recruits. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes from a working class home and a family with a history of legal troubles. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) arrives at the academy directly from the heart of the rough and tumble neighborhoods of South Boston.
Once the two graduate, they're each offered career-making assignment. Sullivan is smart and ambitious; he's offered the chance to be a detective. Costigan, on the other hand, is called before Captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) where he receives an entirely different proposition. Queenan and his assistant, Sergeant Dingham (Mark Wahlberg) see in Costigan's background a rare opportunity to get an undercover officer into South Boston. In fact, they want Costigan to infiltrate the gang run by the most wanted man in town, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).
Costigan accepts the dangerous challenge, and promptly disappears into his role. What nobody else knows, though, is that Sullivan is also going undercover. The twist is that he's already on the job as an informer for Frank Costello himself. Needless to say, both are good at what they do, and both achieve some measure of success. But as also might be expected, the police eventually realize they've got a spy in their midst. Costello — who is certainly no less intelligent than the cops chasing him — discovers the same is true from his perspective.
Now Costigan must try to discover who the turncoat on the police force is if he can — all the while protecting his own status and identity with death the penalty for a misstep. And Sullivan has to do what he can from his position on the police force to help Costello flush the mole in his gang even as he's placed in the uncomfortable position of hiding his own true loyalties well enough that his co-workers can't identify him.
When you mix the very real risks for both men with the exceedingly dangerous and capricious plots of a ruthless crime boss, add a woman, friends, family, lies, and the survival instinct, well, you've got The Departed.
Jack Nicholson is at his Machiavellian best as Frank Costello. There is — as we see so often in Nicholson performances — just a hint of crazy. But Nicholson also manages to convey the utter ruthlessness and keen and intelligent insight of a crime lord perfectly. I believed Costello was real, and I also believed he was scary as hell.
Despite Nicholson's tendency to chew up scenery and spit it out on those actors around him, Leonardo DiCaprio held his own with surprising ease. His range is considerable; in his early 30's, he's finally looking the part as well. Meanwhile, Matt Damon also acted alongside Nicholson credibly, something that's not all that easy to do.
Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg were both very good, especially the former. The rest of supporting cast was also just terrific, including Ray Winston as Costello's ubiquitous assistant, Mr. French; Vera Farmiga as a police psychologist; and a wonderful performance by Alec Baldwin in a small role as a police unit leader.
The Departed is based on a Chinese (Hong Kong, actually) film, rewritten by William Monahan and directed brilliantly by Martin Scorcese. The script is actually worthy of the great acting , and Scorcese doesn't miss a trick with his depiction of gritty and grisly scenes as well as some edits that were pure genius. The special effects were perfectly rendered, and the settings entirely believable.
In short, The Departed is exactly what a movie should be. Technically, it's very well done. But more importantly, the story is gripping, the action is exciting and horrifying by turns, and the characters are people we care about whether they scare us or we empathize with them. I was riveted from the deceptively matter-of-fact start to the appalling end. (As an aside, you just may be hearing more about The Departed come awards season. I wouldn't be surprised to see Nicholson, DiCaprio, and Scorcese singled out as well as the film itself, its script, and the cinematography. It's just that good.)
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Departed is rated R for "strong, brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content, and drug material." The drug material is peripheral, but the language is rough and almost constant. Worse is the violence which is truly brutal and quite graphic at times. The Departed isn't suitable for children nor will sensitive adults find it easy to watch. But anybody who likes suspense, old-fashioned cops-and-robbers movies, or just plain fantastic movie-making won't regret spending a nickel of the ticket price for The Departed. It's well worth the price of admission and then some.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at