...the best thing the director has done in years.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"When I was your age, they would say we could become cops or criminals. What I'm saying to you is this: When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"
--Jack Nicholson, "The Departed"

Note: In the following review, John wrote up the opening remarks, the video, the audio, the extras, and the parting thoughts. In the midst of all this, Jason wrote up his own extensive comments on the movie.

The Film According to John:
I have to begin by saying I wasn't as impressed as a lot of critics were by Martin Scorsese's last two pictures, "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator." I thought they had more style than substance to them. Therefore, it's nice to see the director back in stride with 2006's "The Departed," a film that put Scorsese back on the mean streets he handles so well.

Screenwriter William Monahan based "The Departed" in part on directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller, "Infernal Affairs" ("Wu Jian Dao"), which I suggested at the time might be Hong Kong's answer to Michael Mann's 1995 crime spree, "Heat." Both films were psychological dramas with some elements of action, rather than outright action flicks; both films explored the nature of good and evil, pitting nontraditional good guys and bad guys against one another; and both films featured star players in the title roles. Both films offered gritty, no-nonsense approaches to the traditional cops-and-robbers genre, and if you liked one, you might like the other.

Going a step further, Monahan transferred the Hong Kong setting of "Infernal Affairs" to Boston and incorporated elements of the real-life gangster, Whitey Bulger, a Boston hoodlum still at large, into the script. More about that in the "Extras" department below.

The result of all this is that the viewer has three such crime dramas to choose from: "Heat," "Infernal Affairs," and "The Departed." Never mind that I still think "Heat" surpasses the other two; they are all worth one's while, and it's "The Departed" that has been collecting all the awards.

One other comment in passing: I continue to harp on titles. I thought the international title "Infernal Affairs," a play on "Internal Affairs" investigations, sounded corny and might have suggested to potential viewers a comedy. Likewise, I think "The Departed" is an unfortunate title, suggesting perhaps a comedy about the funeral business (as in "The Loved One"). Those minor details aside, "The Departed" offers a tough, suspenseful, no-nonsense, if overlong look at the inner workings of crime mobs and the police out to stop them.

Yes, as I say, for me the movie is too long. Jason mentions below how much he enjoyed the film's 151-minute length, saying it could have run even longer. This would be our only major point of contention. I thought of "The Departed" in much the same way I think of Peter Jackson's "King Kong"; Scorsese and Jackson include virtually the same plot and the same scenes in their respective films as in the films they're based on, yet both directors expand them by half or more. Longer is not necessarily better, and quantity does not always equal quality. The dialogue in "The Departed" sometimes runs along so far as to exhaust a person. Among the second disc's extras, Scorsese shows us about nineteen minutes of footage he deleted; he probably could have cut another nineteen minutes, and no one would have noticed.

Anyway, what we've got in "The Departed" is a cat-and-mouse game where it is never too clear who is the cat and who is the mouse; nor is it clear with which character we are supposed to identify. Is it the criminal mole in the police operation or the police mole in the criminal organization? And which of them is going to catch on to the other first?

The gimmick in "The Departed" is the same as in "Infernal Affairs": The two moles (or "rats," as the movie calls them) are themselves both officers who went to the same police academy. They are two men of about the same age and the same generation, one ostensibly "good," the other outwardly "bad." Yet both men, the undercover cop working within the gang and the gang member working within the police, feel the pressure of what they're doing. Neither man is comfortable in his position; neither man likes what he is becoming.

Therefore, this is not your usual good guy vs. bad guy yarn. It's really a story about the good and evil in each of us and how different people cope with the dichotomy. Additionally, I enjoyed "The Departed" as much as "Infernal Affairs" for being intense, and for its not pulling any punches. Scorsese uses practically the same ending as "Infernal Affairs," rather than going for a soft, Hollywood finish.

Acting honors? While Nicholson is less a caricature here than he has been in some recent pictures, he is still Nicholson. It's just not a charming Nicholson. It's Nicholson with some of the old edge to him, playing a truly despicable, thoroughly evil character. But I wonder about his name in the story, Frank Costello. He's supposed to be an Irish mobster, after all, so why does he have so non-Irish a name as Costello? Yeah, I know there are probably thousands of Costellos in Ireland, but that's not the point. Would Scorsese have named an Italian gangster "O'Malley"? Besides that, there really was an Italian mobster named Frank Costello, a powerful New York crime-family boss for decades. Was Scorsese purposely trying to draw our attention to this other, real-life character? If so, for what reason? His name for the gangster bothers me.

Matching Nicholson are Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in the other lead roles, playing two men very opposite, yet very much alike. All the same, it's Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga in supporting parts who almost steal the picture from the stars. What we have, then, is fine ensemble acting all the way around, making for a fairly engrossing film. Just beware: It contains even more f-words than it does bullets and violent deaths, and that's saying something. The movie is rated R for good reason.

The Film According to Jason:
Before we start, this review of "The Departed" is going to attempt to stay away from spoilers of any kind. There will be a lot of "himself," "this character," and other similarly vague terms in order to sustain the surprises of the film for the audience. That being said, some plot points are going to be discussed. Proceed with caution.

Police dramas are a dime a dozen, especially on the television screen. As good as those shows might be, they can't hold a candle to Martin Scorsese's newest, "The Departed." This film is really two different stories: The first is about a cop in bed with a criminal out of some sense of loyalty; the other is about a cop in bed with the same criminal with the express intent of bringing him down. With an all-star cast and a narrative that could have run another half hour past its already long-sounding two-and-a-half hour running time, "The Departed" is the reason we go to the movies.

As a child, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is befriended by crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Through a quick series of images, Sullivan graduates from the Boston Police Academy and ends up in a position where he can tip off Frank when the feds are after him. On the other end of the spectrum, Billy Costigan's (Leonardo DiCaprio) entire family, save one person, are criminals in one way or another. That leads him to being recruited to infiltrate Costello's crew in the hopes of finding information which will bring him down and-later on-find the rat.

Let me just say, quickly, that Leonard DiCaprio--once the world's whipping boy for "Titanic"--has become one of the foremost movie stars in the world. There was a time not too long ago that he was a punch line. Really, though, that disaster film put him on the Hollywood map. Since then, he can count Tom Hanks, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons, and John Malkovich as his costars. That's not including the talent he shares the screen with in "The Departed," chief among them Jack Nicholson. What's more is that he's not coasting on previous work or on his looks; his acting choices have been about his talent, talent that is on display full force here.

You can see the fire in his eyes, the hurt, the confusion, the frustration with every turn the movie takes. It's never more evident than in the beginning when he is being interrogated by Staff Sergeant Dignam (a perfectly vicious Mark Wahlberg) in his first interview. His eyes become red, as if on the verge of completely breaking down, but he never loses his cool and, when he's had enough, he goes on the offensive. And the eyes tell the entire story. They go from being a deer caught in the headlights to a lion ready to pounce on his prey. The fact that he manages to give Nicholson--his main costar--a run for his money throughout the film is an even better gauge of how far he's come in a few short years.

None of this is to say the rest of the cast do any less than DiCaprio. The actors--Nicholson, Damon, Martin Sheen, Wahlberg, Alex Baldwin--completely inhabit the characters and the world in which they live. Just about the only gripe anyone can have is with Nicholson's Boston accent, or, more precisely, the way it fades in and out during the film. There are certain words that sound "Bostonian," but on the whole, this is Jack being Jack.

All of that being said, "The Departed" is a film that demands constant audience attention. Without it, the various twists and turns will fly in one ear and out the other. Why? There are numerous subplots: Who knows who, how they know each other, the various sides everyone is on, and why they pledge their allegiance the way they do. While the acting is one of the reasons to spend two-and-a-half hours with "The Departed," it's not the only one. Again, as I said before, in the interest of not spoiling what is a wild movie, we're going to talk about the plot in general terms.

First off is the final 15 minutes. Unless you've seen the film on which "The Departed" is based ("Wu jian dao or, internationally, "Infernal Affairs"), it might be a shock. Really, when you think about it, there isn't any other way the film can end. This is a story about people who lie, murder, cheat, steal; they are duplicitous and looking out for only their best interests. While some of them have honorable intentions (such as Costigan), others are clearly doing the wrong thing for the right reason. A case in point is Sullivan. He jeopardizes his entire career and his future by feeding information to Frank. Why? Because Frank was a father figure when Colin was young. Loyalty is to be admired, and foolish allegiances when you know something is wrong is nothing more than folly.

Second is the execution of the story by director Scorsese. He doesn't tell us what to think of the various players in the drama by employing ominous camera angles or "villainous" lighting. Now, we're left to make our own decisions as to what to think about the characters. And he doesn't take any shots at our current political climate, save for a chuckle at the expense of the Patriot Act. Additionally, the movie takes place in Boston, not the director's favorite milieu of New York (ironically, the movie was mostly shot in the Empire State, though). It deals only minimally with religion, another Scorsese hallmark. Everything the camera does is steady and designed to make the narrative as straightforward for the audience as possible. A lesser director might have tried something a bit different to make the audience ooh and aah. Not here. Every shot is grounded in reality and nearly every shot comes from the vantage point of a person watching on the sidelines.

However, as gripping and Oscar-worthy as "The Departed" is, it's not flawless. I'm perfectly willing to let a contrivance or two go by in the interest of forwarding the plot. But when a main character who has been as careful as possible through the film to cover his tracks leaves a damning piece of evidence lying on a desk where another character can find it, it's a plot device, not an event that evolves organically from the story. I also felt one of the shocking moments halfway through the film was contrived, along with the requisite fallout. Watch for the swan dive off a roof and then a rather pointless scuffle for a computer code. Extraneous, really, and something that could have been edited out.

In that swan dive, you have to wonder why said character goes to this location by himself. Yes, he has a position of authority and should be able to take care of himself. But he doesn't tell anyone where's he going and heads off into a seedy part of town without any backup. Why? Of course, it's a function of the plot. This person needs to exit stage left with everything he knows, leaving someone else in a bit of a bind. It's convenient that one of the two people with the truth dies off and the other removes himself from the situation shortly thereafter. (Yes, yes, I know this is a remake and has source material to stick to. It doesn't mean I have to like it.)

I hesitate to mention anything about the ending at this particular time. It is a severe mind trip in every which way, and it comes out of left field. From what we know in the preceding two hours, this person should not do the thing he does. But it does happen, and it left at least my viewing group scratching their heads. Vengeance or rat? I still can't tell you.

Normally, a contrived or trite ending totally destroys a movie for me, but whatever issues I might have with it does not discount what has come before. And the confluence of acting, writing, directing, and production is a pleasure to behold on all levels. This is another feather in the directing cap of Scorsese and has put him in the running for a Best Director Oscar. A rock-solid cast, a script that knows when it should be humorous, and some jarring moments make "The Departed" one of the best pictures of the year. Definitely an 8 out of 10, but not for the squeamish.

Thank you, Jason. Now, about the picture quality. In short, it's very good. The movie's original aspect ratio, 2.40:1, is here rendered at about 2.21:1 across my television, a pretty decent widescreen size. Then, using a very high bit rate, the WB engineers produce a fine anamorphic image. Colors are deep enough to look on a par with high definition, and these hues are reasonably natural, too, if sometimes a bit glossy and bright. Moreover, a fine grain gives the picture an added degree of texture. Cap all of this off with good object delineation, with very little blur or smear and only a touch of softness, and you get above-average video.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics offer up very wide dynamics and very strong transient impact, making not only gunshots and punches to the head stand out vividly but rendering dialogue as clean and crisp as you could want it. Bass is deep when needed, but, surprisingly, there is little in the way of surround sound. The front speakers, left and right, handle ambient noises well enough, but there is little information fed to the rear channels. Nevertheless, when the surrounds are called upon to do their occasional work, they do it comfortably.

Disc one contains the widescreen presentation of the film; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; thirty-seven scene selections; and a widescreen theatrical trailer. At start-up only there are previews for "The Painted Veil," "The Reaping," and "Blood Diamond."

Disc two is where you'll find the background material, the greater part of it being about the director rather than about the film. First, there is a twenty-minute featurette, "Stranger Than fiction: The True Story of Whitey Bulger, Southie and the Departed." As I mentioned earlier, screenwriter William Monahan based much of his script for "The Departed" not only on "Infernal Affairs" but on the real-life gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, who terrorized South Boston for the better part of three decades in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s. Interestingly, in an interview with Bulger's priest, the priest says he had no idea Bulger was a killer. Uh-huh. Next, there is a feature-length TCM documentary, "Scorsese on Scorsese," eighty-five minutes long and divided into seventeen chapters. Richard Schickel wrote, produced, and directed it in 2004. It presents some informative glimpses into the director's career, thoughts, and intentions, but for me the best part was Scorsese's American Express card commercial. After that is a twenty-four-minute featurette, "Crossing Criminal Cultures," in which Scorsese compares his gangster films with celebrated movies of an earlier time, like the old "Scarface," "Public Enemy," "Little Caesar," "The Roaring Twenties," and "White Heat." After that, there are nine deleted scenes, totaling nineteen minutes, each scene with its own introduction by Scorsese. Most of these scenes are pretty good, particularly an extended death scene, but in a film I already thought was too long, I can understand their deletion.

As a final bonus, the double, slim-line disc case comes housed in an attractive slipcover. This is, after all, a prestige product.

Parting Thoughts:
"The Departed" is no "Goodfellas." It lacks the earlier film's raw energy and gutsy approach to mid-level gangsterism. But "The Departed" offers something else: Suspense. And not a little ambiguity. We really don't know who to root for at times, as Scorsese takes us ever closer to the criminal mind, forcing us to sympathize in a way with both hero and villain. Although "The Departed" does not quite make it into the highest echelon of Scorsese films occupied by the likes of "Goodfellas," "Taxi Driver," and "Raging Bull," it is the best thing the director has done in years.


Film Value