The argot of New York’s Little Italy is Martin Scorsese’s first language, but the filmmaker speaks fluent, pungent Bostonese in the terrific cops-and-mobsters tale The Departed. And no wonder: That old Southie nabe, in the shadow of downtown bureaucracy and yet a world apart from it, is not so different, in its clannish insularity, from Scorsese’s. Boston scrod or Elizabeth Street scampi, what’s the diff?
In embracing this new locale, Scorsese creates a movie built on the foundations of GoodFellas and Mean Streets but not chained to it, a picture that feels as effortless as The Aviator and Gangs of New York felt effortful. Like many a smart urbanite, Scorsese appears to have used travel to another city to broaden his vistas. (After visiting London for Match Point, Woody Allen must know the feeling.) And that unclenching brings out the best in his instincts, which in turn allows him to bring out the best in his actors: Complicated, compelling Leonardo DiCaprio, for one, reaches a new career high in this, his third Scorsese picture.
Consider the setup: The Massachusetts State Police (in Beantown slang, they’re ”Staties”) are intent on bringing down Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a Boston Mob boss impervious to the inconveniences of the law. To that end, Southie-bred police cadet Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) is sent undercover to infiltrate Costello’s organization. Aside from Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), no one on the force knows of Costigan’s assignment.
But moles burrow both ways. Rising young sergeant Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) falls in with the Staties’ Special Investigations Unit, reporting to his own unit commander, Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin). Colin is as snappy and upwardly mobile as Billy is scruffy and dead-end, a status-conscious yuppie. While he appears to be investigating Costello with zeal, it just so happens that since altar-boy childhood, this particular homey has been secretly loyal to Costello, who essentially groomed Sullivan to work for him on the inside — tipping him off to police maneuvers, that sort of thing. And to make matters even more complex, Colin’s classy girlfriend, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a police psychologist, is also involved with Billy — he’s her patient.
The Departed comes by its puzzle pieces honestly — the movie, with an outstanding script by Kingdom of Heaven screenwriter William Monahan, is a relatively direct adaptation of Infernal Affairs, a great 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller steeped in Chinese conundrum and Hong Kong aesthetics. But where Infernal Affairs is less interested in psychological nuance than in Eastern-style elegance of action, Scorsese and Monahan showcase Western-style, actorly character building at its most enjoyable. DiCaprio’s adult intensity as a young man agonizing over the disappearance of his real identity under the weight of playing someone he isn’t is matched by Damon’s thoughtful restraint. Wahlberg — a charismatic, always underrated natural — digs into his own Mean Beantown Streets background and comes up with surprising fury. Sheen, freed from West Wing presidential responsibilities, imbues his cop captain with a surprising pathos. As the one woman in an all-male saga, Farmiga’s Madolyn hints at female secrets and personal sadnesses probably not necessary to the film but welcome nonetheless. The learned (or, in the case of Wahlberg, resumed) Boston accents sound ripe but right, with Baldwin adding his own audience-pleasing oomph to the exercise.
And lest anybody’s wondering, The Departed is splattered with moments of pure, dead-eyed, blood-soaked Scorsesean violence — the pop-pop of bullets and oof-oof of beatings that explode skulls and smash faces. (Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and production designer Kristi Zea give the whole enterprise, which shot mostly in NYC, a grimy, gray, Bahston Hahbuh look.)
I’m not sure what Nicholson is doing in two rococo scenes, one with a rubber sex toy and another entertaining two women at the opera — goofing around, I think, with more Jack-ness than the director should have put up with. On the other hand, Costello is the flashiest guy on the street, as well as the most dangerous. Working with Scorsese for the first time, Nicholson provides a menace that’s half silky, half seedy. The very title The Departed suggests a James Joycean take on Irish-Catholic sentiment when, of course, this story is anything but: It’s Scorsesean, and he’s in full bloom.