He has made good musicals (New York, New York), surreal comedies (After Hours), satires (The King of Comedy) and biopics (The Aviator), but Martin Scorsese has never done better than the times he's dealt with life on the streets and gangsters. Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino (and, to some degree, Taxi Driver) are proof of that. It doesn't seem strange, then, that his finest film in over a decade (Goodfellas was released in 1990) sees him return to that familiar ground. With a few changes.
The Departed, based on Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (2002), is Scorsese's first gangster film not to feature Italian-American criminals. In fact, this film is set in Boston, where the Irish rule. One of these "godfathers" is Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the man the State Police want the most. After years of investigation, they're finally getting close, thanks to undercover agent Billy Costigan (Leonardo Di Caprio). Because of his family (all Irish, all bad), becoming a member of Costello's crew isn't that difficult. Now all Costigan has to do is report to his superiors, Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), who will pass on the information to Ellerby's (Alec Baldwin) Special Investigations Unit. What they don't know is that Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), the most promising element of said unit, has been on Costello's payroll since he was 12. Soon enough, both cops and crooks become aware of the situation, beginning a manhunt that's gonna make the already fragile Billy even more nervous and Costello increasingly crazier.
By moving from Hong Kong to Boston, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan have made the first step in ensuring this film will be quite different from its Chinese inspiration. Another significant factor is the running time: a mere 97 minutes for Infernal Affairs, 150 for The Departed. This is due to new characters (Dignam and Costello's henchman Mr French, played by Ray Winstone, were missing in the original) and subplots, such as the one concerning Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist who gets emotionally involved with both of the moles. But the most crucial difference is in the depiction of the underworld: whereas IA was stylish without being excessive, Scorsese's vision comprises very colorful language (some insults are so creative one might expect Joe Pesci to show up) and, of course, buckets of blood, the last part of the movie proving to be particularly shocking. None of the scenes ever reach the gross-out level of Casino's head-in-the-vice scene, but in pure Scorsese tradition it remains unflinchingly violent (also notable is the music, perfectly setting the mood, scene after scene, alongside Thelma Schoonmaker's impeccable editing).
Amidst these brutal surroundings, the director handles a spot-on cast: Baldwin, Sheen and Wahlberg (the latter finally back on form) make good use of their little screen time, Damon fine-tunes the edgier side he showed in The Talented Mr Ripley and the Bourne movies, and Nicholson, playing the villain again at last, delivers another OTT but classy turn (original choice Robert De Niro would probably have played the part with more calm and subtlety). A special mention is needed for Di Caprio: working with Scorsese for the third consecutive time, he has finally found a way to shake off his Titanic image, thanks to a vulnerable, gripping (and arguably career-best) performance.
With its clever plot, excellent acting and expert direction, The Departed is without doubt the year's best film so far. If this really is going to be his last gangster film (he has said so), as well as his last studio-endorsed picture, Scorsese can be proud, given the masterpiece he has given us. If only they gave him the Oscar in return...