Monday, January 14, 2008

The Departed

Institutionalized Ball-Busting

Call it the Scorsese Thesis: First a guy tells you what he's gonna tell ya, then Marty shows ya, then you're on your own.

In the case of "The Departed" "the Guy" is Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello, a seedy Boston crime-lord from "some years ago." "I don't want to be a product of my environment," says the shadowy Frank (Scorsese's way of showing Frank as a younger man). "I want my environment to be a product of me."

Nicholson's Costello makes good on that promise on two fronts--in the scenario of "The Departed," and the movie, itself. Costello's control over his Boston turf (or, using the accent Martin Sheen employs here, "too-urf")is so absolute, his reach extends from his surly band of criminals to the police department, culminating in one of his own crew (Matt Damon) infiltrating the very task force investigating his activities. Simultaneously, the player on the other side, Captain Queenan (Sheen) has trolled the new recruits to find his own mole (Leonardo deCaprio) to infiltrate Costello's crew. It turns into a complicated Spy Vs. Spy with both moles straddling the moral fence, while completely unsure of their footing on either side. And while trying to rat out their suspected counter-part while not drawing attention to their own treacheries. They're mutually duplicitous. As Costello says in the Thesis: "When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I'm saying is this. When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"

It's a complicated game of Jack's Straws...set in a house of mirrors. Drop Nicholson's weight into the middle of it, and the whole thing threatens to pancake...much like the movie. This first colaboration with Scorsese is similar to Marlon Brando's eccentric performance in "The Missouri Breaks," where an actor so drapes himself in business that he attracts the eye in the same way as a car-wreck--you wonder what in Hell this crime-clown (it is much like Nicholson's Joker in "Batman" without the make-up)is going to do next. Damon and DeCaprio were not clued into his on-set antics and so their scenes are played with the right touch of paranoid hesitancy. There's a strained wariness behind their eyes and they've rarely been better.

As good as they are (and excessive as Nicholson is) best among the cast is Alec Baldwin as a fast-talking divison head, but the real revelation here is Mark Wahlberg. Marky-Mark walks away with the picture and dominates every scene he is in, no matter who's in it with him. In fact, in the one scene Baldwin and Wahlberg share, Scorsese throws in a couple of "Raging Bull" camera moves for a verbal feint and parry between the two. It's a director's nod to two extraordinary actors doing solid work, free of gimmicks.

As for Scorsese, if you're looking for a return to his greatest efforts, this isn't it. It makes you wonder what he's up to. This story is nothing new, and is in fact based on a Chinese film (and its two sequels, actually) that owes more to the early personal style that he fails to deliver on here. What's the fascination? We've seen the cop/criminal discotomy, as well as the conflicts of working undercover in better films. He's doing program work, not personal work. This isn't "Raging Bull" or "Mean Streets" or "KunDun" or "Goodfellas." This is "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." Or "New York New York." Or "The Aviator." One senses he's pacing himself, keeping his hand in the game doing agency "package" movies until the next inspiration comes along. Perhaps he should ditch DeCaprio, and find that last, good DeNiro project. He's too good a film-maker to waste on remakes and empty biographies. Maybe after the struggles he went through to bring his last personal project to the screen he's asking himself at this point in his career "What's the difference?"

"The Departed" is a Rental-You gotta problem wid 'at?


simoncolumb said...

c'mon - this is incredible stuff. I think the whole mise-en-scene throws most people - contemporary, modern gangsters ithin the city (i think of the colours blue and white) of Boston. No dapper suits (The Goodfellas and Casinos) and there is no grand-epic, period story-telling (Gangs, Age of Innocence, Aviator).

This is small-scale, cops and robbers ... but at its most professional finest.


Yojimbo_5 said...

Yeah, yeah, I know I'm out of step on this one, but I was surprised by what weak tea this was.

"Age of Innocence" is "incredible stuff." So is "Taxi
Driver," "Kundun," Raging Bull." "The King of Comedy." "Mean Streets" (also cops-and-robbers, small time stuff).

It's not suits and period detail (which is nice to look at, sure) that makes Scorsese. It's good story-telling. Perhaps it's Monahan's script (he's done better work since), maybe he tried to do too much in one film squeezing all three "Infernal Affairs" films together, but "The Departed" needed a strong director to slap a lot of the dross out of it--and I'm thinking the Vera Farmiga part here--and between that and letting Nicholson run wild, Scorsese was taking it easy. This is his weakest film (and weak is not a term I'd associate with this director).

The irony? This is what he wins the Oscar for. Even a second viewing didn't convince me on this one.

I guess we have to agree to disagree. Welcome to the site, and thanks for following. All objections are welcome.