Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Departed

2006's THE DEPARTED was proclaimed by many to be a return to the sort of kinetic filmmaking for which Martin Scorsese is best known.  Within seconds, expectations seemed to be confirmed.  There's that rapid fire editing by longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker.  The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" thunders in.  Sharp, harsh dialogue.  Wise narration fills the soundtrack, this time by Jack Nicholson.  It's impossible not to be reminded of the great GOODFELLAS.  THE DEPARTED even similarly begins with two of its main characters' early lives, growing up in the 'hood. There's another great cast: Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen.  The violence is strong.

So why is it that I just can't rank THE DEPARTED in the Scorsese pantheon with the likes of MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, and GOODFELLAS?  Does it suffer the fate of CASINO, of deja vu? Does it feel like Marty was just repeating himself? Somewhat, but I'm happy to watch just about anything this living master of cinema shoots. Scorsese has left the neighborhood plenty of times to create a wide array of features like THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and KUNDUN.  Not always entirely successful but there's never any doubt that you are in the hands of an uncommonly gifted filmmaker.  Hell, I'd watch a film on the mating habits of mollusks if Marty was in the director's chair.

THE DEPARTED is a remake of INTERNAL AFFAIRS, a highly regarded 2002 film from Hong Kong.  That film has popped up on cable a few times but is always dubbed, so I've yet to see it.   Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan have combined it and its sequels into one long, profane crime drama that gives the whole theme of identity a real workout.  Trust, too.  Common themes that are entertainingly explored in THE DEPARTED but despite the film's added dimension of having the character of mobster Frank Costello (Nicholson) based on Whitey Bulger, it's all curiously hollow and forgettable.

Colin Sullivan (Damon) and Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) are both moles working with Costello from different angles.  The former has been groomed by the gangster since childhood to work his way into the Massachusetts State Police, organized crime division.  Costigan - whose family members really were "family" -  is recruited by the Boston PD to cozy up to and bring down Costello.  Police shrink Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga) is involved with both of them in a plot thread that really went nowhere for this viewer.  The calculus of who is infiltrating whom gets amusingly thorny, leading to a climax and denouement that won't have anyone thinking that they've just experienced a "feel good" motion picture.  Pretty grim. You could argue, Shakespearean.

And by the ending the impact really wasn't there for me.  Despite solid performances (although Wahlberg overdoes it a bit as a belligerent Staff Sergeant),  I wasn't sufficiently involved with any character.  I felt almost as ambivalent as I did at the close of the tepid Larry Fishburne/Ellen Barkin double cross thriller BAD COMPANY.  Lots of attempted "OMG!" plot twists but little emotional resonance. THE DEPARTED is energetic and colorful, but is finally just another sad tale.  Interesting, beautifully directed, testosterone heavy, and empty.  Kinda like CASINO, though admittedly much better.

But not disposable; no picture of Marty's can be.  I like THE DEPARTED, and for many other directors this would be a golden effort.  But a filmmaker of Scorsese's caliber is put to a very high standard.  If only Paul Schrader, author of many of the director's greatest, had been there for this.  You would have had the emotional weight this film lacks.  You may have had a fifth classic for the Hall of Fame.
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