Frequently excessive but never dull, "The Departed" is a little too much of a lot of the things that define Martin Scorsese films but it's also almost impossible to resist. Too operatic at times, too in love with violence and macho posturing at others, it's a potboiler dressed up in upscale designer clothes, but oh how that pot does boil.
The key to the success of "The Departed's" cops-and-robbers tale of connivance, duplicity and deception is a crackerjack premise that comes courtesy of Hong Kong's 2002 "Infernal Affairs." Written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, that film was a monster hit both at home and throughout Asia that spawned two sequels and was acquired by Miramax but never released theatrically in Los Angeles.
The idea is that in the midst of a war between the police and organized crime, each side succeeds in placing a clever mole in the heart of the other camp. Gradually, each spy discovers the existence — but not the identity — of his opposite and, as the noose tightens and the tension ratchets past the cracking point, each man struggles furiously to unmask his rival before he himself is revealed and destroyed.
Scorsese's film, set in Boston and starring the powerhouse combination of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson, duplicates several of the themes of "Infernal Affairs" and borrows numerous key scenes and even a few lines of dialogue from the original.
That said, screenwriter and Boston native William Monahan (who did Ridley Scott's underrated "Kingdom of Heaven") has done a persuasive job lengthening and deepening the Hong Kong story, adding plot and character complexities and ending up with a film that is a full 50 minutes longer than the original. A cross between a B picture and grand opera, "The Departed" features dialogue that alternates between unblinkered obscenity and tangy lines like "he'd kill seven people to cut my throat, and he could do it."
Having a strong story and script has energized both Scorsese (returning to the gangster genre for the first time since 1995's "Casino") and his actors. In addition to its trio of marquee names, "The Departed" showcases excellent work from a wide range of performers, including Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin and, in the role that may finally break her through to the wider recognition she deserves, Vera Farmiga.
But even though it has a lot that's worth showing off, "The Departed's" florid determination to be showoff-y, to take pride in bravado, is periodically worrisome. Though a story like this has to traffic in excessive violence and unsettling language, it's not essential to flaunt those elements. Unlike Clint Eastwood in "Mystic River" (a similarly dark story with the same Boston locale), Scorsese has a need to periodically go over the top that will either be to your taste or not.
The same is true for Jack Nicholson's central performance as criminal kingpin Frank Costello, a.k.a. Mr. C, the Irish godfather of his Boston neighborhood. Introduced with a voice-over monologue that practically drips aphorisms ("People say you're a product of your environment; I want my environment to be a product of me"), Costello is the kind of boss who knows everyone's secrets and takes care of his own.
It's the intention of "The Departed" to mythologize Costello, to see him as a criminal lion in winter charismatically unconcerned about his frazzled hair and questionable taste in clothes. The film trades successfully on Nicholson's legendary presence to do this, perhaps too much so. For every moment when Nicholson gets it just right, and there are plenty of those, there are others where the performance feels indulged more than is good for it.
Costello is introduced taking a paternal interest in a young neighborhood boy. A decade passes in moments and the boy is Colin Sullivan (the always reliable Damon), a new member of the Massachusetts State Police assigned to the Special Investigations Unit under Capt. Ellerby (a gleefully profane Baldwin). He's supposed to be investigating Costello, but he's actually on the man's payroll, tipping his mentor off to what is going on.
The other "statie" in the film is Billy Costigan (DiCaprio). We meet him being verbally taken apart by Capt. Queenan (Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Wahlberg, with the film's most authentic Boston accent) of an undercover unit. They want to know what's inside Costigan because they want him to go so deep undercover in Costello's organization even he will have trouble remembering what side he is on. Which is pretty much what happens.
Most of "The Departed" is gainfully employed with these kinds of cat-and-mouse maneuvers, as the two men, different sides of the same coin, play out their double and triple games in an exceptionally violent world. Whenever one of the film's numerous indulgences threatens to disrupt things, strong acting and the wheels-within-wheels plot don't let it happen.
Though he is not without competition, the best of the film's male actors is DiCaprio. Moviegoers used to his eternal boyishness will be pleasantly surprised at this, his first fully adult role, at the genuine substance and maturity he brings to this part without losing any of his trademark vulnerability. As Scorsese told Entertainment Weekly, "his face is a battlefield of moral conflicts."
Another revelation for some viewers will be the critical performance of Farmiga as Madolyn, a psychiatrist with links to both Costigan and Sullivan. An actress who has been quietly knocking roles out of the park for half a dozen years, Farmiga handles this tricky part with aplomb, convincingly bringing different emotions to her scenes with both men. It would be a heck of an irony if this super-macho film was remembered as the one where this splendid actress finally got her due.
MPAA rating: R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material
A Warner Bros. release. Director Martin Scorsese. Screenplay William Monahan. Producers Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, Graham King. Director of photography Michael Ballhaus. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
In general release.