Saturday, October 7, 2006

Reel To Reel: The Departed

Good cop. Bad cop.

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Language, Graphic Bloody Violence, Brief Sex

Nobody makes a mob movie like Martin Scorsese. Nobody makes them better, either. Francis Ford Coppola jumped the shark after The Godfather Part II. Scorsese has shown consistency in this genre since Mean Streets, even though Gangs Of New York didn't hit the bullseye. His latest returns to the profanely blood-soaked underworld of GoodFellas and Casino, with sudden outbursts of violence set to a classic rock and pop soundtrack.

The Departed is the parallel tale of two elite Massachusetts State Police officers -- one infiltrating Boston's Irish mob, the other tipping them off -- in a dance of cryptic cell phone conversations, text messaging and lies. An undercover unit recruits street cop Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) to slither into the empire of gangland boss Frank Costello (Nicholson). Costigan's got plenty of goombah connections to make his cover stick. Costello's got his own mole: the slick, sharp-dressed Colin Sullivan (Damon), an elite investigator groomed to do Frank's bidding. While Sullivan makes token progress against Costello, Costigan entrenches himself into hoodlum graces. But soon enough, both cops and mobsters find they've got a rat problem.

The film, adapted from the Hong Kong action thriller Infernal Affairs, propels us through a highly entertaining labyrinth of plot twists. We know somewhere along the line, one guy's going to make the other, but getting there is the fun. So is Scorsese's direction, with breezy editing and dark humor.

Jack Nicholson's performance sends the needle off the scale. He evokes more fear with a look of his twisted face than any armbreaker with a gun. Just hearing him talk drops the temperature in the room ten degrees. DiCaprio's Costigan is a solid sell, driven to prescription anti-depressants by this undercover tightrope act. Unlike Scorsese's earlier gangster flicks, we hear no narrative track. Costigan supplies one of sorts, in desperate conversations with a psychologist (Vera Farmiga) who also happens to be -- ta-da -- Sullivan's girlfriend. Damon carries on as the smooth operator, the man with the I'll-handle-it attitude.

One performance steals the show: Mark Wahlberg as a foul-mouthed punk cop in charge of the undercover unit, an officer so demeaning and vile it's a wonder he's not shot by his own agents. Martin Sheen turns in a memorable performance as a soft-spoken superior who only enhances Wahlberg's obscenity.

The Departed does not get too procedural nor too emotional. It's a two-hour long chess game with cops and capos as the pieces and the audience in the center of the board. We can see all the sides but not how the game will end.

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