After directing two massive historical epics (Gangs of New York and The Aviator) Martin Scorsese approaches screenwriter William Monahan’s highly polished adaptation of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs with an exhilarating fluency that combines flawless visual compositions and informed musical cues with an unbridled sense of dark humor. Monahan reconfigures the setting of the original story to take place during the 1980’s era battle between the Staties and Boston’s Irish mob.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a rookie undercover cop in South Boston, where he infiltrates the Irish mob run by Frank Costello (played with volcanic energy by Jack Nicholson). Billy’s problem with maintaining Frank’s unraveling do-or-die-trust escalates while he attempts to uncover the identity of Frank’s secret mole, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), inside the Special Investigations Unit of the police department under the cool-headed Captain Queenan (well played by Martin Sheen) and his hard-ass assistant Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg).
Billy and Colin are opposite sides of the same coin. Each man carries intense internal struggles with his peculiar demons. Colin is profoundly loyal to Frank for mentoring him since childhood in the ways of Boston’s mean streets, and is sharper than a laser-cut emerald for the education. He’s on the “fast track” within the Special Investigations Unit, even if the canny Sergeant Dignam neither trusts nor treats him with anything less than over-the-top hostility.
Some of the movie’s best laughs come from the intentionally irreverent and crude Bostonian humor shared by Boston natives Damon and Wahlberg. Inside of the film’s unity-of-opposites is a classic race against time scenario wherein two similar yet different men must bring down the other one before those close to them discover their particular ploy. The two actors share an entertaining mix of similarities and differences that add a layer of character-driven substance to Scorsese’s already dense cinematic cocktail.
The Departed involves interconnecting moral, ethical and physical crises that are passed along as if from rats spreading rabies. Nearly every character, with the exception of Captain Queenan and Sergeant Dignam, are infected with betrayal. As the only female character in the movie, Madolyn sets the bar low on her ideals of marriage and career when she furtively dates Billy, her tightly wound psychiatry patient, in order to satisfy physical needs not being met at home with Colin. She soon becomes pregnant, and the filmmakers plant a soft question about the true identity of the child’s father.
There is no reason to compare The Departed to Scorsese’s other gangster films, Mean Streets and GoodFellas, just as comparing those two films is an exercise in futility. Scorsese has continued to grow as a director. He loves to toss into The Departed an homage to a film like The Third Man, to give audiences a reference point about things that please him. But he’s also insanely interested in making sure that the composition of every frame contains exact pieces of narrative information and a visual balance.
He’s still using the camera in new ways that complement the progress and tempo of a scene. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (GoodFellas) does an outstanding job, as does Scorsese’s ever-precise editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Martin Scorsese is a master director in every sense of the word and with the help of his ensemble has made a masterpiece of modern cinema, complete with a triple climax ending. MTW