Cops as robbers

Martin Scorsese’s latest film ‘The Departed’ ranks among the director’s best

Matt Graham

It’s a well known story: The best director of his generation, arguably the top crime filmmaker of all time, gets repeatedly nominated for an Oscar only to lose to the likes of Ö Kevin Costner and Robert Redford?!

“The Departed” is Martin Scorsese’s best effort since “Goodfellas,” the Mafioso flick that the Academy inexplicably viewed as inferior to “Dances with Wolves” in 1990. Think they’d like that one back?

The film takes place in the seedy world of Boston crime, moving back and forth between the cops and robbers so often that it quickly becomes impossible to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad. But, as crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) tells his young protégé early on, “When you’re facing a loaded a gun, what’s the difference?”

Flash forward twenty years, and that young man has grown up to become Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who apparently took Costello’s lesson to heart. He has just graduated into the Massachusetts State Police force and is rising rapidly up the ranks as the hottest rookie in town.

Another rookie is the less-heralded Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks with no family to speak of whose spotty background and high SAT scores make it seem like he should be anything but a cop.

Sergeants Queenan and Dignam (Martin Sheen and a hilariously unstable Mark Wahlberg) give him another opportunity to serve the public. The offer: commit a crime and go to jail, then infiltrate Costello’s crew. The catch: nobody will know about his undercover role except the two of them.

Thus begins Costigan’s gradual descent into madness and drug addiction, as he loses the ability to distinguish between himself and his adopted role of petty thug.

Toss in Alec Baldwin as Sergeant Ellerby, and what you have is a big name cast that actually lives up to its billing. Nicholson is especially good as the most lovable heartless bastard to hit the screen in quite some time.

Damon and DiCaprio deliver what may be the best performances of their careers. Still, it’s easy for a cast to be good when every other aspect of the film comes together so smoothly.

William Monahan’s tightly-woven script is based on Sui Fai Mak and Felix Chong’s 2002 Hong Kong film, “Infernal Affairs.” It features a perfect mix of action and depiction. The film’s pace continues to pick up speed right until the closing credits while still finding time to plumb the depths of its characters’ three-dimensional psyches.

Though it is adapted from a foreign film, the script provides a poignant commentary on post-Sept. 11 America. Sgt. Ellerby’s praise of the powers granted to him by the Patriot Act is funny, as are the gripes by local city cops, wishing they got some of that Homeland Security money, but it goes deeper than that.

America today exists in a kind of limbo where nobody really knows who the enemy is. Is that guy down the street a terrorist? Is my phone being tapped? Can I trust the fatherland, or does it have its own hidden motivations? Hell, is it possible that Sept. 11 was an inside job?

Though the film never makes explicit mention of any of these issues and avoids any long, drawn-out conversations on politics, these concerns underlie all of the twists and turns that keep coming and coming.

Ultimately, though the danger is real, it comes from just about the last place you’d think to look.

“The Departed” has a lot going for it, but the element that brings it all together, as always, is Martin Scorsese’s masterful directorial hand. No filmmaker has been so consistently good at delivering both the sizzle and the steak.

He wields just the right amount of visual style and visceral brutality without taking away from the labyrinthine plot and delicate characterizations, allowing “The Departed” to move with its own momentum. This isn’t his masterpiece – that mantle belongs to either “Goodfellas” or “Raging Bull.” But “The Departed” stands up next to anything else in his body of work.

It may even be enough to get him that coveted first Oscar – so long as no actors get nominated in the Best Director category this time around.