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Home > Movies > Reviews

The Departed
Review by Russ Breimeier | posted 10/06/06

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The Departed

Rated R
(for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content, and drug material)

Genre: Drama, Crime

Theater release:
October 6, 2006
by Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Runtime: 149 minutes

Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg (Dignam), Martin Sheen (Oliver Queenan), Ray Winstone (Mr. French), Vera Farmiga (Madolyn), Alec Baldwin (Ellerby), Anthony Anderson (Brown)

Talk About It/Family Corner
What Others Are Saying

What defines our identity and sense of morality? Is it our family ties and the sins of our past? Our actions today in the work we do and decisions we make? Or perhaps something deeper that affects the heart and soul, like love and grace?

You wouldn't expect such philosophical questions from a standard cops-and-robbers drama, but then again, 2002's Infernal Affairs wasn't exactly standard. A blockbuster hit in Hong Kong and highly acclaimed among American film buffs, it skillfully played with an intriguing premise so intricate, yet simple enough to make you wonder why no one devised it sooner. A gangster sends one of his young protégés to work his way up in the police force as a mole to serve his needs. Meanwhile, the police send one of their own undercover to undermine the crime boss. Both covert agents are aware of the other's existence, and both try to uncover the other's identity before they're found out. But what if the undercover cop plays the role of a thug too well, and what if the mole learns to enjoy becoming a cop?

Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, a state trooper who takes on a dangerous undercover assignment

The story proved so intriguing, it captured the attention of director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio while they were making The Aviator in 2004. Suppose the story were transplanted to the U.S., say the mean streets of Boston. What if the film took more time to develop the back-stories and motivations of the key players? And what if Jack Nicholson got on board to deliver a crazed, Oscar-worthy performance in an expansion of the crime boss role? Enter The Departed, Scorsese's Americanized adaptation of Infernal Affairs.

Only the most devout fans of Hong Kong cinema would be so enamored with the original to say there's no improving upon its excellence. Several characters were under-developed, the soundtrack made awkward use of pop music, and the script went out of its way to remind you of the protagonists' conflicting dualities. Still, can you blame people for being skeptical of another botched Hollywood remake? The Departed, however, is one of those rare exceptions of a film that generally improves on the source material, despite falling short of it in other ways.

Matt Damon is Colin Sullivan, the boy who grows up running errands for Irish crime lord Frank Costello (Nicholson), quickly rising up in the elite ranks of Boston's state police. It's not that he isn't good at his job, but everything seems to be handed to Sullivan—his high profile career, his penthouse apartment, and his girlfriend Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a psychologist for the police force. Yet lurking under that friendly poster-child demeanor is a man doing as much as he can to undermine justice in service to the devil himself.

Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan, a rising star in the police department who is not quite what he seems

On the other side is Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), who joined the police to escape the criminal ties of his family. Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) see his past as an opportunity to get closer to Costello, dismissing him from the force to send him deep undercover. And though Costigan plays his hand well, he becomes unraveled as he bloodies his hands and slowly becomes the very thing he tried to avoid. To cope with his unhinging emotions, he begins to see a psychologist and develop a relationship with her—Madolyn, all too conveniently.

At the center is Costello, with Nicholson never more insane and over the top since his performance in The Shining, which is mostly a good thing. At nearly 70, there's a weariness about him that suits the part, requiring him to spout Machiavellian wisdom through several entrancing monologues. This is a man who's seen (and taken) it all, yet still has nothing at heart, explaining his cocky behavior and gradual descent into madness when he's unable to remove the interloper in his own ranks. Like Al Pacino, it's enough of a pleasure to watch an actor do what he does best, though as usual, Nicholson goes a little too far—especially when he starts miming a rat to describe the one undermining his gang.

In a blend of his performances from Good Will Hunting and The Bourne Identity, Damon does well at exuding steely charm—you're never quite sure whether to feel sorry for Sullivan because of his predicament, or hope that he's found out because of his misdeeds. Even more impressive is DiCaprio, who takes one more giant leap after The Aviator in his maturity as an actor with a completely believable performance as a troubled cop/thug who simply wants to do the right thing, yet is forced to do some wrongs to accomplish that. It's a strong cast all around, though special mention should be made for Alec Baldwin's humorously charged and eccentric performance as the captain of a special unit task force.

Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello, head of Boston's Irish mob

And to his credit, Scorsese has delivered an intelligent, briskly paced crime drama that's almost never dull in its 149 minutes. The editing constantly shifts between Costigan and Sullivan, so we often know what the other is doing at all times. It brings consistency to the tone of the story's more complex plot point, going back and forth with the actions of the two moles as they try to undermine one side by helping another.

The Departed does falter slightly with a couple missed opportunities. A key scene involves the police's attempted trade bust between Costello and a Chinese gang. It goes wrong because of simple failure to stage cameras throughout the meeting place. The same scene was far more mesmerizing in the first thirty minutes of Infernal Affairs, as both moles try to use their wits and resources to outmaneuver the other side.

Also frustrating is how The Departed fails to explore both father figures in the script. They're thorough with Costello—Costigan and Sullivan are both stuck with him, forced to respect him for completely different reasons. But Queenan is underdeveloped as the analogue to Costello. His character is far more poignant and meaningful in the original movie, building a relationship as the moral compass both agents wish they had.

Martin Sheen as Captain Queenan and Mark Wahlberg as the potty-mouthed Sergeant Dignam

But the real problem is with the content itself. The Departed has lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of profanity. Wahlberg's Dignam is about as foul-mouthed a cop as you'll find, particularly fond of the f-bomb, and even using one of those words considered worse than the f-bomb. It got to the point where the excess of objectionable material hampered my enjoyment of the overall picture—and before you start suggesting the need for realistic portrayals of criminals and streetwise cops, consider that Infernal Affairs was every bit as believable with an identical storyline, yet could almost have been scaled down to a PG-13 with its content.

The violence is more comparable to Goodfellas than the original in blood and brutality. There's also a key scene where Sullivan meets Costello in a movie theater for information; in this version, Scorsese sets it in a porno theater and has Costello play a crude prank with a sex toy. And Scorsese once again can't resist slapping the Catholic church with the implication of yet another pedophile priest. Thankfully, they supposedly trimmed a scene that led to Costello's participation in a drug-fueled orgy with two women—like almost everything else here, completely unnecessary and gratuitous.

Which is unfortunate, because aside from the offensive material, The Departed fires on all cylinders as one of the best crime dramas ever made—smart, suspenseful, and technically well made from every angle. Of course, it's nice that there's an alternative for those unwilling to look past the excesses of The Departed. I cannot deny that it's an extremely well executed flick, but for a less epic and vulgar film experience, yet equally satisfying version of the same story, stick with Infernal Affairs.

Talk About It  Discussion starters

1. Considering the predicaments in which Costigan and Sullivan find themselves, do you believe The Departed is saying that our choices and actions are black and white, or is there more grey involved when trying to do good or evil? What do you personally believe based on experience and biblical teaching? Is there grey in the way things unfold in everyday life?

2. What do you believe are the underlying motivations for Costigan and Sullivan's actions? Are they selfish or selfless? Are they rooted in loyalty to another? Are they trying to escape a certain lifestyle or pursue it?

3. Frank Costello tells Sullivan that man makes his own way by taking action, not submitting to the rules of others. To what extent do you agree or disagree? Can we be proactive, yet obedient?

4. Consider what is meant by the title of the film, which comes from a phrase at a memorial service—"Heaven holds the faithful departed." Does it pertain to the loyalty of the characters to their leaders, or more to the actions they take?

The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Departed is rated R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content, and drug material. There's relentless profanity, including use of the f-bomb nearly as often as the average person uses "the," not to mention irreverent references to God, racial slurs, and crude sexual references. The strong sexual content seems less a reference a scene of intimacy and more in connection with a scene that takes place in a porno theater. Though the violence doesn't get too graphic, there's plenty of brutality through numerous bloody shootings and intense beatings.

Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 10/12/06

You might be a cop. You might be an undercover agent. You might be a crime kingpin. Or a sexy psychiatrist. No matter who you are, it's like the Bob Dylan song says: "You gotta serve somebody."

In The Departed, Martin Scorsese's hyper-violent remake of the Hong Kong crime classic Infernal Affairs, everybody has secrets, agendas, and a willingness to pull the trigger. And underneath their carefully composed disguises, all of them are devoted to the service of somebody—either a criminal, a cop, the cause of justice, their family's honor, or their own selfish hearts.

As Scorsese explores the mean streets of South Boston, he finds the cops at war with an organized crime operation run by ruthless Irish-American thugs. And the farther he takes us into this conflict, the more we realize that both sides are thoroughly corrupt. Undercover operative Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to get close to crime kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), but the closer he gets, the more he must involve himself in reprehensible deeds. Meanwhile, one of Costello's fellow conspirators, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has crept up in the ranks of the Boston police to become a prominent investigator.

The Departed is a film of superior craftsmanship, with dialogue as jarring and relentless as the gunfire, cinematography that takes us on a tour of a shadowy underworld, editing that winds up the tension to almost unbearable levels, and some of the year's most compelling performances.

But the film falls short of greatness on several counts. First, Jack Nicholson's outrageous over-acting becomes a distraction. Second, the film's only prominent female character—a sophisticated psychiatrist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga)—is implausibly reckless and unprofessional. And finally, Scorsese fails to give proper attention to the most admirable character of the bunch—Martin Sheen as Oliver Queenan, the chief of the Boston Police Department and a Catholic who is the film's most upright and principled man. And yet, Queenan is all but ignored, lost in the chaos of bullets and double-crossings.

It's a shame that Scorsese, in expanding on Infernal Affairs, is so much more interested in embellishing his characters' sordid behavior than he is in examining marks of virtue and principle. This may cause concern for anyone anticipating his next film—an adaptation of Shazuko Endo's Silence, that magnificent and harrowing novel about a Christian missionary whose faith is put to the test.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says Scorsese is "back in his element, exhibiting the gritty flair he showed in films such as Mean Streets and Goodfellas. … For all its implausibilities, the film, buttressed by solid performances and Scorsese's cinematic bravado, keeps you absorbed."

Forbes also notes, "In this sort of film, a high quotient of violence is to be expected, and though Scorsese doesn't exactly wallow in it, there are some strong sequences that will be hard to take. Less dramatically sound is the nonstop barrage of expletives, excessive even for the underworld environment."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "In some ways, The Departed delivers exactly what you would expect from a Scorsese crime movie. Well-crafted storytelling. Impressive tough-guy performances from a crackerjack cast. And several truckloads of brutal, graphic violence and harshly obscene language (especially and endlessly the f-word)."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says the movie is, "overly long, terribly profane, brutally violent and extremely dark. The cinematic technique, especially during the film's first hour, is dazzling—a fluid mix of camera movement, Classic Rock, and Mob machinations that sets a grim and gritty tone for what's to come. But the energy soon lags, and a sea of despair drowns most of the characters, while the law of diminishing returns takes hold of the film."

Mainstream critics are celebrating Scorsese's return to crime sagas, and praising the cast with a flood of superlatives.

from Film Forum, 11/30/06Sister Rose Pacatte F.S.P. (Eye on Entertainment) says, "This film is a testament to just how infested human societies can become with rats, both large and small, old and young. … I wouldn't be surprised if The Departed … doesn't gain an Oscar for Scorsese, at last, and another nod for DiCaprio, who is brilliant as the conflicted good cop."

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