A few moments into The Departed and it hits you—Jack Nicholson is in a Martin Scorsese movie. Yes, you knew about it from the previews, newspaper ads, Entertainment Tonight, etc. But it doesn’t really hit home until you see the man walking along with a Scorsese dolly shot while the Rolling Stones play on the soundtrack. Could anything possibly be cooler at the movies?
This movie is Scorsese firing on all cylinders, a fact made all the more exciting by the presence of Jack, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and more, all in fine form. A loose remake of the Hong Kong cop thriller Internal Affairs, it tells a story about law enforcement officers trying to take down Boston’s organized crime kingpin Frank Costello (Nicholson). An undercover cop (DiCaprio) joins Costello’s crew, while a Costello ally (Damon) joins the police force, creating moles on both sides.
The story that follows is a little crazy in spots (the DiCaprio and Damon characters both fall for the same girl, a psychiatrist played by Vera Farmiga). Most viewers won’t give a damn about any of the plot inconsistencies because the movie just punches off the screen with a ferocity not seen from Scorsese since Taxi Driver. DiCaprio and Damon prove, once and for all, that they are two of the finest actors of their generation. Each delivers a flawless performance.
Nicholson hasn’t had the chance to be this sleazy in a long, long time, and he relishes every moment. Whether he’s shooting some poor slobs in the head on a beach or saying lascivious things to a young female store clerk, this is just about as evil as he has ever been onscreen. Looking a little bit like The Shining‘s Jack Torrance with a sinister goatee, Nicholson arches those eyebrows and gnashes his teeth, clearly having a blast with the role.
Damon plays a character that is, in many ways, more sinister than Nicholson’s. As Colin Sullivan, a young cop brought up under the secret tutelage of Costello, Damon is the consummate weasel. This could prove to be a career year for Damon, who will also be featured in the upcoming Margaret and the Robert De Niro-directed The Good Shepherd.
DiCaprio should finally silence some of his critics with his work as Billy Costigan, a character who gives new meaning to the words “deep undercover.” Costigan is given carte blanche by his superiors (an excellent Sheen and Wahlberg) to be a badass undercover cop, and his mission involves jail time and the right to kick people’s asses, a right he chooses to exercise frequently. When he emerges from prison, he gets on Costello’s crew, where his family pedigree (his uncle and dad were criminals) wins him a chance despite Costello’s knowledge that he was a washout as a cop (part of his undercover identity).
Martin Sheen, in a role that was supposed to be played by De Niro, had me worrying for his post-Apocalypse Now heart attack coronary system with some of the major energy he dials up as Oliver Queenan, Costigan’s boss. Wahlberg is right at home with the snappy, nasty dialogue he’s given to deliver. For extra comic relief, Alec Baldwin has a couple of very funny moments. For truly horrifying badness, Ray Winstone is perfection as one of Costello’s cronies.
Scorsese is clearly having a blast with the chance to cut up in a crime story again. He’s gotten some great performances from actors before, but The Departed probably contains more great ones than any previous Scorsese film. It’s going to be tough figuring out who to give the Oscar noms to. As with Goodfellas, Scorsese makes optimum use of classic rock on his soundtrack, crackling edits from Thelma Schoonmaker and some of the best camerawork in cinema history from the remarkable Michael Ballhaus.
So here we go again. Scorsese has made one of the year’s best films, the best one so far, and he doesn’t have an Oscar. Will he get snubbed again? For now, my guess would be yes because it just feels natural. We’ll know in February.