October 11, 2006

Movie Review: The Departed

In 2002 there was a film called Infernal Affairs. It was a big hit in its home of Hong Kong, and all over Asia. It was a highly entertaining crime movie starring a pair of actors who know how to get it done in Andy Lau and Tony Leung. It was a finely crafted game of cat and mouse from directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. Considering how much I enjoyed that film, I was skeptical when I heard that it was in line for an American remake. I never dismiss a remake out of hand, as some turn out to be very good, but if it is of a movie I like there is always that initial worry that a good film will be let down by an inferior copy.

Fortunately, that is not the case here. Good fortune smiled upon us all when Martin Scorsese became the name attached to the film. He brought with him screenwriter William Monahan, whose only prior credit is Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Then the actors started to line up and sign on the dotted line, Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, among others. All of the planets were aligning for this one.

Opening night came and I found myself in the middle of a sizable crowd, all sitting in anticipation of this new entry in the crime genre from the master. The trailers played, followed by our introduction to Boston, to Marty's Boston, a city filled with good guys and bad guys and those still figuring out which side of the line they are.

Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is the man, he is the bad guy that everybody fears, as he just may be the physical manifestation of the devil himself. We are introduced to him as he takes an interest in a young man at a local corner grocery in what appears to be the early 1980s. He gives him some food for his family, and a handful of change. This act sets in motion that young man's future.

Jump ahead to the present day. That boy is know a grown man, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and he is all set to graduate the State Police academy. Another member of his graduating class, Billy Costigan (Leonardo Dicaprio), is also reaching for a future. Little do they know that their futures ar inextricably linked together. It will be some time before they realize it, but they will be brought together by fate.

The Departed is a cat and mouse story at its heart. It is a simple story, to be sure, but one that is layered with multiple layers of deception and intrigue. It is a story that becomes much more than the simplicity of the cat catching the mouse before the mouse gets away. What if the cat decides that he would rather play it safe and eat what his owner has left in the kitchen? What if the mouse thought it was a cat and was hunting the real cat? Such is the oddities of the natural world, what if our respective moles had problems keeping their identities separate?

The film is so much more than the plot. Don't get me wrong, this is a story that was done to great effect in the original film, but this new take on the material just takes it to the next level. Scorsese and Monahan incorporate these layers of identity crises, and relationships that did not exist in Infernal Affairs. I read that neither Scorsese nor Monahan watched the original film, rather they worked strictly from a translated copy of the script from Alan Mak and Felix Chong.

William Monahan's script brings depth to these moles, creating a mob mole in Damon's Sullivan who does what he needs to, but is also keenly focused on saving his own skin if things go south. Conversely, there is Dicaprio's Costigan who struggles daily with his dual life as an undercover officer, keeping up face with both sides of the law and not having an easy time of it. The script plays fast and loose with profanity, capturing what it could really be like in the presented situation. There is depth, humor, and deadly seriousness all in equal parts creating layers with which Martin Scorsese plays.

Scorsese paints with the camera working closely with DP Michael Bellhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Skillfully gears are shifted as we move from character to character, plot point to plot point. There is enough complexity here that it would be very easy to lose the audience. Shifting around is done so skillfully, so naturally that you never lose where you are. Rather I was captivated by the humor and drama, and the superb ensemble acting.

Something else that worked in the film's favor was the audience I saw it with. On my way out I took a quick scan and saw quite the array of types, men, women, young, old, and everywhere in between. As we watched the film, it was as if we were all one. We laughed, gasped, and laughed some more together. It was a great experience, the likes of which I do not have that often, a couple of times a year, if I'm lucky.

Bottomline. This is one of the best films of the year, and one of Martin Scorsese's best. The ensemble cast is fantastic, with everyone hitting the right notes. The script is masterful at keeping its focus and delivering the laughs and the thrills. In the end, this movie had me nailed to my seat for two and a half hours.

Highly Recommended.
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