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Boston Strangled

Martin Scorsese Leaves New York, Loses Footing With The Departed

FIGHT LIKE A GIRL CLUB: Damon and Dicaprio have a little tiff.

By Ian Grey | Posted 10/4/2006

In the catalog of missteps and indulgences that has lately defined Martin Scorseseís output, The Departed is an odd but illuminating bird. It isnít the empty pastiche of shallow icon study and Hollywood retro that The Aviator was, but it needs more of what Gangs of New York--a total mess of a movie--had in spades: passion, a sense of connection between filmmaker and material.

While fitfully entertaining, The Departed is retrenchment Scorsese at his technical best but on autopilot, with the things that make his more rote movies instantly identifiable--editor Thelma Schoonmakerís smartly jumpy cutting, cinematographer Michael Ballhausí swoop-dolly camerawork, and Scorsese stuffing the soundtrack with favorites from his classic-rock collection--here veering dangerously close to self-parody. With William Monahanís neo-Mamet dialogue shouted robustly by an enjoyable supporting cast of hams--the best thing here--the truth is that anyone with decent chops could have made this movie.

Monahanís script neatly streamlines the source material, writers/directors Alan Mak and Andrew Lauís 2002 Hong Kong policier Infernal Affairs, and itís finest improvement is in the initial depth afforded Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an honest Boston cop internally conflicted over his both lower- and upper-class roots. Costigan is recruited by secret investigations men Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to go deep cover to infiltrate an Irish mob led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

Just a few offices away, careerist cop Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is also working the Costello case--except as a snitch for Costello, who he has idolized since he was a kid in the lower realms of working-class South Boston. What follows is a series of moderately interesting cat-and-mouse games as Costigan tries not to have his cover blown while also not going batty with the double-identity thing, while Sullivan--not even aware Costigan exists--foils his every effort by keeping Costello informed.

The Departed includes some typically gruesome Scorsese bits--a funny/grisly scene in which Costello absently handles a baggie-ed severed hand during a meeting comes to mind--but the real pleasures come courtesy Alec Baldwin, who walks off with the movie, Glengarry Glen Ross-ing his way through some chewy bits of racially scabrous misanthropy.

Wahlberg gives terrific loose cannon and Ray Winstone delivers superb menace as Costelloís casually homicidal right-hand man. DiCaprio, meanwhile, does what he can with the pop-eyed panic offered him; the same with Damon in his register. Meanwhile, a soapy subplot involving a cop therapist (Vera Farmiga)--whom both Costigan and Sullivan sleep with--underlines Scorseseís intermittent mystification with what to do with women in his movies.

Really, itís a stingy movie, showing no affection between Sullivan and Costello, no sense of shared profit or any real reason the young up-and-comer is in thrall to Costello--to the point that you wonder why he doesnít just pop the old guy and collect the spoils. But itís the lack of nuance or even basic information about Costello--Nicholson in maleficent mode--that really makes the movie sag.

In fact, Costelloís one-time voice-over about not wanting his environment to shape him suggests Scorsese realized something was missing with his featured mobster. But that bit of character telegraphy aside, thereís no sense that Scorsese understands what drives Costello, unlike his profound understanding of what drove everyone in Goodfellas.

And while the accents are right--givens thanks to Beantown natives Damon and Wahlberg--Scorsese has no feel for how this particular city shapes its occupants, and this from a guy whose has mastered such things in the past. The old saw against Scorsese being at a loss outside of Manhattan rears its head again.

And while thereís much talk of allegiance to family or some such, you never actually see said family in motion. Similarly, the Irish mob here is tantalizingly limned as entering the 21st century via missile-guidance microprocessor chips sales, which verges on a metacommentary on amoral globalism but ultimately comes off as a mere lip service. And thatís the biggest problem with The Departed--it feels constantly on the verge of going somewhere but never arrives. When Scorsese indulges his usual crescendo of violence, the effect is like someone slamming shut a novel on you just when things were starting to get interesting.

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