Sometimes, when you put a whole bunch of male actors on the screen, you get drama magic. From 12 Angry Men, to Glengarry Glen Ross, to The Thing, to The Great Escape, the right combination of despair and testosterone will give you fantastic movie moments, filled with memorable quotes, crackling silences, and often-imitated facial expressions. But, you have to have your formula right. Too often, an all-male cast is lost in a heavy plot, or distracted by unnecessary effects. The Departed is a focused, plot-driven cop drama – and although Martin Scorcese’s fans will argue differently, it’s a movie well worth your time and money. Even for a remake of Hong-Kong’s Infernal Affairs, The Departed is fresh, and energetic, keeping you involved until the very last scene. So why all the criticism?
The answer is simple, really. When you’re Martin Scorcese, you have an impressive resume: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Aviator. You simply do not make bad films – in the eyes of your admirers. Any new project will be built up to match the highest expectations, and any imperfection – no matter how small – will be ripped to shreds by “loyal” fans. A couple of years ago The Aviator was treated with this reception – people expected a movie of the decade, and all they got was a movie of the year. A fantastic biopic, but a few uneven moments, a few too many minutes – and the film is flagged as a failure. Same thing happened with Bringing Out the Dead in 1999. Don’t we just love to bury the very idols we build up?
The Departed is a better film – tighter, more engaging, with fascinating main and support performances in literally every scene. Its plot borders is tough to follow, but if you enjoyed Face Off, imagine a dead-serious version of it – without any hi-jinks. It’s about an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to root himself deeper in Boston’s mafia outfit (run by an unpredictable Jack Nicholson). At the same time, Nicholson plants a mole inside FBI (Matt Damon). The good guys (FBI) include Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg. The bad guys – Nicholson and his goons (most notably Ray Winstone). The two leads – Damon and DiCaprio – keep playing a tight cat and mouse game to the point where you don’t care who’s good or bad, you’re just dying to see their inevitable showdown.
The Departed visual style borrows a lot from Scorcese’s earlier works. There are beautiful montage sequences that remind you of the best scenes from Casino and Goodfellas. There are event expositions to catch you up (in case you’re lost), and character vignettes (to build a back-story). All told with a blazing speed, they keep the plot interesting, and give believable, realistic motivation to the actors. So much is told to explore these people, it seems we witness their lives, and not just events of a few days. The film is packed with accurate depictions of corrupt Boston (frankly, when has this city not been corrupt, mayor Menino?) which adds to the cruelty exchanged between the cops and the thugs. A shootout becomes a fight for survival and not an obligatory action scene.
The Departed also sports a cool soundtrack, which only adds to the authenticity of the story and the place. At a time when filmmakers are tempted to stick a single of the week into their frames, Scorcese finds obscure, but well-seasoned tracks to remind us how the streets sounded like. Then there’s the heavy accent. Sure, it doesn’t work for some – Mark Wahlberg’s character was such a motormouth, his accent kept running away with the barrage of insults, but with Baldwin and Sheen playing regular guy who happen to be cops – it was a pleasure to listen to their words.
Perhaps the biggest fault I saw with the film is that it’s nothing new – a tired genre, that has been polluted by ridiculous movies in the past. Scorcese takes that familiar scenery and raises every aspect to a new standard – from speech patterns to chases to psychology of a thug. The performances all around are fantastic – the men seem to be sparring in every scene, regardless of their loyalties. Add to that a detailed locale and good knowledge of Boston’s rotten (or imagined) police force history, and you have a compelling, fascinating drama – not an action flick, but a cop drama. And that is a genre all in itself.