Martin Scorsese's gangster films generally induce a warm glow of familiarity. Remember when that poor sap in Goodfellas (1990) got stamped half to death by Joe Pesci? Or when that man in Casino (1995) had his head crushed in a vice, again by Pesci? Ah, happy days. The faint of heart will be relieved to find that Pesci is not in The Departed, but don't get the idea that this is a romantic comedy. You've barely taken your seat when Leonardo DiCaprio starts pummelling someone's face with a broom handle. You could set your watch by the film's regular eruptions of violence, though admittedly that would be a pretty weird thing to do.
DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a hothead taken under the wing of Boston's crime kingpin, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The lad is plainly lacking in job satisfaction. It's not the murder and drug running that's getting him down, so much as the effort it takes to conceal his identity: Billy is actually an undercover cop embedded in Frank's gang.
DiCaprio, who is only now looking old enough to see his own films, is very good at conveying anguish - at times he appears to be trying to eat his own face from the inside out. Possibly he's wondering how he ended up playing straight man for the second time in a Scorsese film. After being upstaged by Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002), he now stands by while Nicholson steals scenes.
The 69-year-old actor treats every line like a mouthful of chateaubriand, to be chewed and savoured. And he has more than his share of meaty moments - at a porno cinema, he implores the on-screen performers: "Be dirty! Be dirty!" But he's like a black hole, sucking the energy out of everything around him. Scorsese hands Nicholson so many grandstanding scenes that the film's emphasis is rarely where it should be. The real story, after all, involves Billy and his opposite number. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who secretly works for Frank, has infiltrated the Massachusetts State Police and is sabotaging the team assigned to nail his boss. While Billy is losing his mind, Colin is having the time of his life being promoted and dating a beautiful psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga). The situation gets seriously complicated when each mole learns of the other's existence, and they begin trying to smoke one another out.
Waves of déjà vu will hit anyone who saw the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. But all the things which made that crisp little picture so enjoyable - punchy editing, dramatic intensity, brevity - are absent from Scorsese's baggy, meandering remake.
The film does, however, offer colourful roles for a killer cast: Ray Winstone plays Mr French, the leathery henchman who is like a doting wife to Frank; Martin Sheen plays Billy's superior in the manner of a doddery aunt; and Mark Wahlberg provides light relief as a profane detective who gets his kicks intimidating rookies.
It's brave of Scorsese to forgo his stylistic mannerisms for much of The Departed; for once, he doesn't direct as if he were being paid per zoom-shot. Yet his efforts to bring Boston's Irish-American community to life have none of the thoroughness of his New York films. The crime network amounts to a few scraggly drunks; we get no sense of how far it reaches, nor of who is in line to succeed Frank. Billy warns him that his foot soldiers could be plotting a coup, but these oafs don't appear to plan beyond their next pint or punch-up.
There are intermittent signs that Scorsese is hatching a critique of masculinity, putting testosterone to the test as he did in Raging Bull (1980). Colin suffers from impotence, while Billy's big love scene is undermined subtly by the sound of that ultimate passion-killer, Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb". But, like the romantic sub-plot, this line of investigation leads nowhere. Plausible psychological scrutiny loses out to shot after shot of brains being splattered. And boy, do you get a lot of brains for your buck. It's just a shame they're all on the walls and not in the script.
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Brothers of the Head (18)
dirs: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
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The Devil Wears Prada (PG)
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