October 5, 2006

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TheĀ Departed (R)
Martin Scorsese offers up an almost perfect action movie in The Departed, a thoroughly engrossing American version of the good cop vs. bad cop Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs.

Only almost perfect, I suppose, because there's a bit more of a love story than is necessary for this film. Only almost perfect because Jack Nicholson is a little too often Jack Nicholson and not quite enough his character at times. Only almost because critics gotta criticize something. But I take only .5 percent off the grade for this project for these trivialities. The Departed will be the best money you've spent at a theater in months.

Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) was a very small boy when Boston gangster Frank Costello (Nicholson) first suggested that, cop or criminal, there really wasn't much of a difference in the long run. Colin takes this advice to heart becoming a shining star of cop-ness for the state police. He excels at the physical, mental and political parts of police work and has the kind of ambition that makes his choice of apartments overlooking the capital building at Beacon Hill seem not like a childish wish but a step toward destiny. He pays for that apartment with the help of mob money, the reward for acting as a mole in the police department for Frank's criminal organization.

Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) grew up as two things. With his mom and her family from the North Shore, he spoke proper English and went to school. Visiting his dad in Southie, Billy dropped his "R"s and attempted to blend in with the ruffians who filled out the rest of that side of his family tree. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Queenan (Martin Sheen), the police officials in charge of the state police's special investigations unit, think this background makes Billy perfect for the job of undercover officer. Officially, he'll be kicked out of the police and sent to jail for assault. Afterward, he'll go "home" to South Boston and infiltrate Frank's organization.

And thus the game is set up: Frank vs. Queenan, Colin vs. Billy.

Only Queenan and Dignam know that Billy exists and who he is (much to the aggravation of the rest of the unit). Colin's identity is known to only a few of Frank's henchmen. But soon, as Billy becomes the thug his file presents him as and as Colin rises in the ranks of the non-undercover part of the special investigations unit, they become aware of each other's existence. Frank asks Colin to suss out the police informant in his crew while, at work, both Colin and Billy are charged with uncovering the identity of Frank's mole in the department. Keeping each man somewhat sane through this is Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a therapist who is treating Billy and dating Colin.

Infernal Affairs, with its tale of corruption and betrayal and characters who have chosen their paths but still have some qualms about them, is a good movie. I submit, however, that The Departed is better.

We get not just the moral conflicts of Colin but the angst of Billy, afraid for his life and eager to end his Bizarro World existence. (The troubles of the undercover cop took a back seat in Infernal Affairs). We get a more fully fleshed out crime boss in Frank (and, yes, Nicholson is a bit too much Nicholson but he gives Frank more of a separate personality than most of his characters have had in years). We get a love story that, yes, probably takes up more of our time than it needs to but even still I don't mind it. It fits with the screwy nature of these personalities. Supporting characters played by Wahlberg, Sheen, Ray Winstone and Alec Baldwin fill the screen with cracklingly sharp, funny characters who, surprisingly, don't detract from the central story.

And The Departed is funny. Funny even when blood is splattering across the backdrops like screaming red Spin Art. Not Jackass funny. Darkly funny. Horrified gasp funny. Joe Pesci funny. Martin Scorsese funny.

After painting only the edges of a canvas in The Aviator and Gangs of New York, Scorsese finally reminds us of his storytelling prowess by giving us this glorious full-color tale. A

— Amy Diaz