Movie review: 'The Departed'

3 stars (out of four)

After the dolled-up theatrics of his last few features, from "Casino" (1995) up through "The Aviator" (2004), it's a kick to find director Martin Scorsese back in prime form, at least in the terrific first half of "The Departed." The second half of this Boston-set thriller, based on the sleek, more sparingly brutal 2002 Hong Kong export "Infernal Affairs," can't quite match it, despite a few bursts of startling violence handled as only a first-rate director can. One question that comes to mind during that second half is actor-related. If anyone other than Jack Nicholson had played the big, bad crime boss, would the film have been 10 or 15 minutes shorter, simply because NObody talks in a more preDICtable, meTHODical RHYthm, even when he's fully engaged, than Jack NICHolson?

In his third meetup with Scorsese, following "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator," top-billed Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a Massachusetts police academy cadet. Costigan's mobbed-up South Boston family makes him dubious cop material but excellent fodder for undercover work. Taking orders from Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and endless grief from Queenan's number two (Mark Wahlberg), Costigan infiltrates the inner sanctum of Costello, played by Nicholson. After a year the strain of all the lying and, for DiCaprio, all the brow-furrowing, starts eating at him.

Nicholson's Costello has planted his own mole among the police. He is the stalwart-seeming Special Investigations Unit officer Colin Sullivan, played by Matt Damon. While trying to learn the identity of the undercover rat, Sullivan deceives everyone, including his lover (Vera Farmiga, whose angular features look stolen from a Modigliani painting), the state police department shrink, who's drawn to Costigan as well.

This is not daisy-fresh narrative territory. Scorsese hasn't so much improved upon a fine, trim thriller (the Hong Kong version was 50 minutes shorter) as pulled a grandiose and confident variation on it. Remarkably, for much of "The Departed" Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan balance the parallel stories of Costigan and Sullivan flawlessly. Aided by the razor-sharp editing of Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker, the film's technique and pacing allows you to enjoy Monahan's ripest dialogue without worrying about who's uncovering whom.

Monahan used to write for Spy magazine, and it shows. "Do you want to be a cop or do you want to appear to be a cop?" Sheen asks DiCaprio, casually. Announcing a new mode of cell phone surveillance being used on Nicholson's gang, Capt. Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) jumps up and down like a kid on Christmas morning. "Patriot Act, Patriot Act--I love it!" he says. In a saloon where DiCaprio has just walloped somebody to a pulp, a Nicholson associate warns him that the injured party ranked halfway between "not a guy you can't hit" and "not quite a guy you can't hit." David Mamet would be proud of such distinctions.

While Nicholson relishes his role, there is such a thing as too much relish. "The Departed" overexploits its villain, or that's how it seems with Nicholson playing him. The actor has become a curious case of someone full of surprises in the most unsurprising way. Nicholson has a ball wrapping his mouth around the grunge-Runyon argot, but it's all play-acting all the time. That's the idea in "The Departed"; everyone's acting a role. But would it kill Nicholson to hurry it up for once? He's in a Scorsese movie, for heaven's sake.

DiCaprio and Damon are fine, but in a mobbed-up, copper-ridden genre exercise like this you tend to notice the players with the natural authority. The guys here are Baldwin and Wahlberg, who not coincidentally get all the best zingers. As a loyal Costello underling, British actor Ray Winstone likewise nails each slack-jawed look and weary realization of his lot in life like a master.

Certain things the director does here he has done before and he will no doubt do again. Many times Scorsese not-so-subtly cranks up the volume on the background music whenever violence is about to explode. He adds impish visual touches such as silent movie-style iris shots, as well as cuts and compositions recalling "The Third Man" and "Psycho." The best of "The Departed" moves with the assurance and swiftness of "GoodFellas." The most expendable stuff in it, by contrast, is just that--stuff that slows the narrative without making it any more important or meaningful.

The film makes a stab at social commentary, by way of Costigan's raging class issues. It also makes a stab at Scorsese's familiar theme of corrupt fathers and vulnerable sons. But what's a couple of knife-stabs against so many guns? "The Departed" exists in a movie-place about as far from personal statements as a storied director can get. Maybe those days for Scorsese are long gone. But Scorsese's sense of craft remains sure.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'The Departed''

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by William Monahan, based on the film "Infernal Affairs"; cinematography by Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; production design by Kristi Zea; music by Howard Shore; produced by Brad Pitt, Brad Grey and Graham King. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:31. MPAA rating: R (for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material).

Billy - Leonardo DiCaprio

Colin - Matt Damon

Costello - Jack Nicholson

Dignam - Mark Wahlberg

Queenan - Martin Sheen

French - Ray Winstone

Madolyn - Vera Farminga

Ellerby - Alec Baldwin

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