Gritty, macho mob realized by ScorseseUproot a tight Chinese gang thriller set in the misty world of shifting allegiances that are the Hong Kong triads, add that man among men, Martin Scorsese, and graft the whole thing onto the Boston Irish mob scene ― that’s “The Departed,” an action thriller about guys who talk tough because they are.
Scorsese’s move from Italian to Irish is seamless, but the focus here is much more on man’s (definitely not woman’s) struggle against his own circumstances ― an excruciating, exhausting, futile effort.
In a wonderful symmetry of deception, the story follows Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a failed state trooper from a family of criminals who gets recruited to infiltrate the local mob, and Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), an exemplary cop from an impeccable background who just happens to be working for that same mob.
And the alpha male at the center of both rats’ lives is boss Frank Costello, played with the reckless, frighteningly plausible evil that is Jack Nicholson’s stock in trade in this kind of movie.
On the opposing side stand Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), the head of the Boston organized crime division, and Queenan (Martin Sheen), the secretive undercover liaison. These men are above the macho scuffles and poverty of their neighborhoods ― they’re true believers. But this story isn’t about them. It’s about the people at the bottom, the ones with nothing to lose.
And among these foot soldiers at least, Scorsese suggests there’s not much difference between the two sides. He ties the gang war of reciprocal hits and betrayals to his film’s “friendly” football game between the state troopers and the fire department ― after the game Damon dismisses a serious question from a comrade by simply reminding him that firefighters are all queers.
Costigan occupies a place between the police and the mob ― he may be working for the former, but even his boss knows he’s not really cop material. Meanwhile, Costigan and Costello both agree that the power and authority that draw people to join the thin blue line are also part of the mob’s allure.
DiCaprio puts in the best performance of his career, realizing perfectly that most difficult of acting lessons ― how to express the attempt not to feel. His face is a stone mask, but with panic lurking just beneath the surface.
Thanks to almost claustrophobic camera work, the chemistry between Costigan and Nicholson is delicious and dangerous, like a small dog barely hanging on to its dignity before a much larger and quieter beast.
Scorsese’s Boston is sharp, crisp, hard-edged, the perfect place to weave his tangled web.
And a reference to the bard would seem particularly appropriate considering the role death plays in the film. The message here is not that good always triumphs ― good only wins because it’s one up on evil in terms of manpower.
“The Departed” is everything a good piece of mob noir should be ― surprising, gritty, macho. And it’s got a whole scene dedicated to a vulgar drubbing of the Chinese mob ― nothing like respecting your source material.
by Ben Applegate
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