'The Departed'

Scorsese's crime thriller sends a top-notch cast into peril

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Ray Winstone, right, reports on the status of a hit to his boss, Jack Nicholson, in "The Departed."
By Barbara Vancheri
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Amid all the bullets, blood and bluster in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," a scene played without dialogue stands out.

'The Departed'

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon.

Director: Martin Scorsese.

Rating: R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material.

Web site: thedeparted.warnerbros.com

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A cell phone, set to vibrate and used strictly by someone who is now dead, comes to life and skitters across the table. The man who answers the phone says nothing; the man who placed the call says nothing. Neither knows who's on the other end, but the wordless exchange crackles with suspicion and anxiety.

That one is a cop living as a criminal and the other a criminal living as a cop simply adds to the richness of the mirrored moment and feeds into the crime drama's theme. Each man's public face is the very opposite of his private face in "The Departed," inspired by the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller "Infernal Affairs."

Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan, who has a talent for the poetic and the profane, explore double lives, deception, trust, father-son relationships, battles within and without and a long-standing effort by the Massachusetts State Police to nail a South Boston mob boss named Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

The police enlist two rookies in their effort. Brash Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is moved into the Special Investigations Unit.

Tormented loner Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was raised on both sides of the tracks, is sent deep undercover, first to prison and then into the heart of Costello's neighborhood. There, he ingratiates himself, joining a cousin in a drug deal, busting some heads, breaking his hand and then having it stomped on, to prove he's not a cop wearing a wire.

Matt Damon plays a rookie cop trying to nail a South Boston mob boss in "The Departed."
Click photo for larger image.

"The Departed" moves along parallel tracks: Billy trying to nail the crooks, Colin trying to tip them off and both fearing they will be exposed as rats. They also are drawn to the same woman, a Harvard University-educated psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) who suggests "honesty is not synonymous with the truth."

Cops who go undercover are nothing new to moviegoers who loved the drama of "Donnie Brasco," starring Johnny Depp as an FBI agent who moves into the mob, or Al Pacino's "Serpico," about an honest cop who exposes corruption among his own. "The Departed" takes that formula and doubles it by having Damon's character wear the uniform of the "Staties" and yet secretly work for Costello.

If that weren't enough, toss in Scorsese, Nicholson -- his Costello tellingly says "Laying low is not what I do" -- a lively supporting cast that includes Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone and Alec Baldwin, and modern twists or applications of cell phones, computers and the Patriot Act.

Nicholson, in a wardrobe with eccentric touches of leopard prints, commands the screen, whether introduced as "the rock star" when his mug shot is flashed, or emerging from the back of a bar, his forearms drenched in blood. No explanation offered.

Damon puts his famous smile to great use here, exuding confidence as a con man, while DiCaprio lets us see how Billy's heart may pound in the presence of a mass murderer, but his hands stay steady. If he is Scorsese's new muse, after "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator," it's a match made in movie heaven.

Scorsese, who hired a 30-year veteran of the Massachusetts State Police as his technical consultant, shot in his native New York and in Boston. He poses Nicholson against a devilish red background, acknowledges the presence of the Catholic Church throughout (priests, nuns, confession, a corpse crumples into a pose reminiscent of a crucifixion) and turns to composer Howard Shore, the Rolling Stones, Dropkick Murphys, Van Morrison and the Band to score his movie.

As usual, Scorsese is no stranger to violence, and when a barrage is unleashed, it comes so fast and unexpectedly that it almost takes your breath away. And this is where the movie falters slightly; the only way to settle a score is by a bullet in the head, as if this were the Wild West or a universe where no other law enforcement agency or legal recourse exists.

It's operatic and over the top and, yet, among the best movies of 2006.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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