Reviewers everywhere are praising “The Departed” to high heaven, with some usually sane regulars going overboard with their espousing of praise for this latest flick from Martin Scorsese. The last time I can recall the ‘critical mass’ was drinking the Kool-Aid this much were over”King Kong” and “Superman Returns”, two bloated and tedious epics that had some great qualities to them, but suffered from hokey scripts and directors who over indulged themselves.
That’s not the case with “The Departed” which, for the most part, lives up to and is deserving of all the praise. It certainly is Scorsese’s best film in over a decade, it works on multiple levels for not just fussy cinemagoers but general audiences as well, and unlike those aforementioned examples it never feels slow, self-important or clunky. The real separation over this film isn’t going to be whether you liked it or not, but rather to what degree you embraced it.
What’s surprising here is that this is not an ‘awards seeking’ kind of personal arthouse film like Scorsese’s more recent movies, rather “The Departed” is simply and purely a thoroughly entertaining mainstream blockbuster designed more to be enjoyed than to be analysed. Yet, much like Chris Nolan did with “Batman Begins” or David Cronenberg showed with “A History of Violence”, it’s one of those great examples of the difference that a visionary director can bring to relatively conventional material – making a solid movie into something far deeper and more rewarding.
The premise is clever, the action is gripping, production values solid all around, and so on. What really makes it stand out though, aside from Scorsese’s style, is simply how much good fun it is. Laughs come frequently and loudly throughout the film, with almost all being character based rather than cheesy one-liners or goofy sight gags. The result is some tremendously smart and snappy dialogue interplays mixed with scenes which give the actors room to breathe and add their own style.
The inevitable result is a bunch of splashy turns all round with the main and more dramatic leading roles mildly upstaged by the showier supporting parts. Not to take away from DiCaprio and Damon who both turn in strong performances as the conflicted rats in their respective ranks, but both get the more straightforward roles with Damon in particular somewhat swallowed up by those around him. DiCaprio, with the darker and more interesting character of the two, is also simply a more compelling part.
Nicholson does his usual ‘Jack’ routine which perfectly suits the material, resulting in simply a great fun character who chews the scenery every chance he gets. Baldwin as the somewhat blunt Special Investigations Chief has all the best lines in the film, so pretty much every sentence out of his mouth yields a hilarious politically incorrect belly laugh. Sheen, as the veteran good cop to counterpoint Wahlberg’s hot headed bad cop routine, serves as about the only sane person in the whole police force.
Where the arguments will happen will be over Monahan’s character-driven script which uses the more linear and serious 2002 Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs” as its template. Under closer scrutiny much of the film’s story falls apart under the weight of impossible coincidences, plot holes galore, and sheer goofy over the top violence. In a film so filled with men carrying ambiguous agendas, it makes some of its side characters a little too cut and dry, most notably the enjoyable but sadly one note Wahlberg. Vera Farmiga, a solid actress, tries her best with some scenes that really stretch believability and for the most part comes out shining.
As the film goes on, the script problems become more apparent with the last 15-20 minutes in particular so over the top and filled with those “oh come on” kind of moments that it whilst it doesn’t ruin the film, it does leave a slightly sour taste (the final shot in particular will probably annoy). Making it worse is that some minor touch-ups to the writing could’ve made this a far stronger and more credible film, but with all the ‘acting’ going on the plot is shuntered to the back tier which robs the film of some genuine suspense and thrills. It’s a shame considering the film’s first half, which sets up the characters and premise, is one of the sharpest written films of any this year.
Ultimately many will embrace it as after all, this is the master returning to the genre which he really helped map out. The film is not a career changer like a “Goodfellas” or “Raging Bull”, the subject matter is far too well-mined and the last act too clunky for that. Rather this is more like a “Casino” or “Cape Fear” – slickly made popular entertainment that turns a familiar formula on its head to make it thoroughly engaging again. Familiar but relaxed and confident work that all can appreciate. A great film? To some degree. Great fun? Absolutely. One of the year’s best films? Most certainly.