The Departed is a remake of the two year old Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs (a superior film in my opinion) and concerns an undercover cop (DiCaprio) in an Irish mob in Boston and a mole in the police force (Damon) who attempt to weed each other out before they themselves get caught.
Its 20 minutes into the film before any of this happens, or even the title appears for that matter. Before it does we get something of a prologue with Irish mobster Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson and based off of real life Irish mobster Whitey Bulger) narrating about his environment, the Knights of Columbus, JFK and black people. It's the only narration we get throughout the whole movie and immediately after the Rolling Stones' Gimmie Shelter is unleashed at full volume accompanied by short and slightly fragmented scenes of violence from Costello's heyday and DiCaprio and Damon's introduction into their fields of play in the film. It's all a bit disorderly and has an amateurish feel to it, as if someone told a random fan to make a short Scorsese movie and they proceeded to throw all the clichés at the screen – DiCaprio, narrations, Gimmie Shelter, people getting shot in the back of the head, lengthy tracking shots, 'the whole nine yards' as police captain Queenan (played by Martin Sheen) would say.
If I was to find a rational explanation for the way the opening of the movie feels so detached from the rest of the film I'd say it's because the start of the film showcases an older time, a previous generation. It was a time more wild and animalistic where the only surviving character of that environment is Frank Costello. It reminds me of Gangs of New York and the opening battle sequence, where the only person to come through the endeavour was Bill the Butcher. Everyone else involved in the battle had either died when the film's main story happened or took their place in the new world of (somewhat) order and stability. It's why the Butcher sticks out so much in the movie. Not only because of the terrific and wild performance by Daniel Day Lewis, but because he is essentially a caveman in an insurance salesman's world and towards the end of the film even he knows he has no place in the new ever-changing America. Similarly, Jack Nicholson's Costello comes off as someone who belongs in a different time away from the tuxedos and police warrants. It's not only him though; many of the characters in The Departed come off as lions and wolves used to roaming the wild trapped in suits and behind wooden desks and piles of paperwork.
The jarring pacing of the film was a real problem for me. I had no sense of how much time had elapsed over the course of the movie and the one time a character had the chance to explain he merely shrugged "long time, long ****ing time" which I agreed with completely. With a runtime of 2 and a half hours the movie is unable to match the brisk pacing of, say, Casino or Goodfellas and instead comes across as a dozen or so clumsily put together scenes in which characters talk tedious topics to each other, with the odd frame of unadulterated violence garnished in. I'm serious – while watching a Scorsese mob & cops film I was actually checking to see how long was left because I was so bored. There is no tension throughout the movie at all which made me unresponsive to scenes that were clearly meant to shock and awe. The dialogue is often vague and meaningless, and only of service when it is used to forward the plot. Take the scene between DiCaprio and Nicholson at the dinner, where they talk about DiCaprio's father, school, sadness
all until I thought to myself what the hell are they talking about? To which, to my amazement, DiCaprio responds by asking "what the **** are we talking about?!" Yikes!
The ambling and dreary nature of the movie might have been elevated by some decent acting. But despite the cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone and Jack Nicholson it pains me to say the performances were shambolic: DiCaprio was shaking, shrieking and squirming so much that it made Costello look like an idiot for not realizing that he was the rat in his crew, Damon looked like an awkward schoolboy as the 'villain' of the picture, Sheen seemed to be attempting to say his lines without spitting out his fake teeth, Winstone decided that the shooting schedule was the best time to start experimenting with every accent known to man, and Wahlberg's profanity-fuelled, nostril-flared cop with little-man syndrome was so irritating that I hoped he would get shot in the head or thrown off a building. Ironically, he's the only major male character that survives the runtime. Nicholson was the best of the bunch, bringing weight to his role where his presence is felt throughout the whole movie in spite of him playing an extension of his Joker/R.P McMurphy characters. But even he, it seems, is somewhat sleepwalking his way through the film only waking up for the odd rat impersonation here and there. And nobody is buying that Boston accent for a second.
Editor Thelma Schoonmaker adopted a frantic style that didn't sit well with me. Some cuts ran for a spit second and we were constantly jumping from scene to scene, camera angle to camera angle. Maybe it was supposed to come off as sharp and gritty, but it just felt unprofessional and clunky. Maybe substituting Scorsese's coked up direction, which undermined any possible nail-biting from me, for a more subtle but equally stylish director would have been better. I always thought the plot to The Departed would fit snugly into Michael Mann's filmography.