Thursday, July 18, 2013


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The best picture award for THE DEPARTED was unusual for two reasons: the first is that is was a remake of a foreign film, only the second best picture winner to ever be so (the first was 1958's GIGI, which was originally done in France in 1948).  The second, more important reason, is that it was the first best picture winner for director Martin Scorsase, who also received an award for best director.   Despite having made critically acclaimed films for years, and being nominated a whopping six times before, he had never won a directing Oscar before.  Personally, I don't think this is his best film (I prefer 1991's GOODFELLAS), but's it's still a wildly entertaining movie, well acted, tense and exciting.  If its victory was just a make up call,  the Oscar voters certainly could have done worse.

Before there was THE DEPARTED there was INFERNAL AFFAIRS, a 2002 Hong Kong action film directed by Andrew Lau and Alan  Mak.  It was very successful in its homeland and was given a limited theatrical release in  the US.  Three years later the Hollywood Warner Brothers studio thought it had potential as an American remake, and screen writer William Monahan was hired to write the script, changing the Hong Kong setting of the original to his home town of Boston, and basing Irish American gangster Frank Costello on real life South Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.  When Martin Scorsase was brought on to direct the film, it seemed like a logical choice given his penchant for making violent films about organized crime (this would be his fifth film in that genre).  Interestingly, Scorsase did not even know that the film was a remake until after he signed on to it, and he wisely avoided watching the original until after he was done making it.  Scorsase quickly cast Leonardo DiCaprio who had previously worked with the director on 2002's GANGS OF NEW YORK and 2004's THE AVIATOR in the prominent role of undercover officer Billy Costigan.  For the part of that character's counterpart, undercover gangster Colin Sullivan, Matt Damon was cast.   Jack Nicholson reportedly turned down the role of mob boss Frank Costello at first , but he eventually was won over by Scorsase, Monohan and DiCaprio, mainly because he hadn't played a villain in a while.   Other talented veteran actors like Alec Baldwin, Mark Whalberg and Martin Sheen were added, and the film was set.  To save money, the film was shot mostly in New York City, but enough location work was done in Boston to make it seem authentic.  It's final budget was around $90,000,000, and it would go on to make around $130,000,000; it was (and still is) Scorsase's biggest money making film.

It's plot revolves around two young men,  Colin(Damon), who since childhood has forged a bond with mob boss Frank (Nicholson), and Billy(DiCaprio), a police academy graduate who's running from his family's crime connections.  Frank has Colin join the police force to give him information on their movements against his mob, while the police have Billy pretend to get thrown out of the police academy and work his way into Frank's organization to help build a case against him.  Both men prove to be good at their chosen roles, quickly rising in the ranks. For a while Colin gives Frank just enough information to keep him ahead of the police,  but when he is unable to stop a raid on a drug deal Frank is making, Colin shoots Frank himself and chooses to remain a cop.  Unfortunately for him, when he brings Billy in to relive him of his undercover operation, Billy figures out who he is, leading to an inevitable show down between the two fakers.

Jack Nicholson & Leonardo DiCaprio

In many ways, this is all classic Scorsase territory; not only is it another organized crime film, but it features his patented urban setting and  characters who are almost all intense, angry, foul mouthed men who are always one step away from acting out violently towards almost anyone around them (even the cops get in fist fights with each other).  It also has the classic Rolling Stones song "Gimmie Shelter"  on the soundtrack, which he had used twice before in other films.  But there are some differences: for one, the Boston setting is far from his usual mean streets of New York location, and, more importantly, the film's plot is much more tricky and complex than the plots his usual films are.  (Scorsase himself would joke that THE DEPARTED won because "This is the first film I've done with a plot.").  And for that we must give credit to Alan Mak and Felix Chong's excellent screen writing work on INFERNAL AFFAIRS, because it's there that the premise of parallel stories concerning an under cover cop and an under cover mobster, along with all the various complications that ensue, was first born, and Monahan's script often stays close to the original.  (Scorsase may not have seen the original, but a scene in which a police chief is thrown from a building looks very similar to the same moment from the earlier film). Still, while INFERNAL AFFAIRS is a good, well made film, THE DEPARTED, with it's bigger budget, better style and more memorable performances,  is a superior remake, with all the original ideas of the earlier film amped up to eleven as only a Hollywood film can.  The film maintains an excellent sense of tension throughout , as both Colin and Billy are constantly in jeopardy of being exposed, and I love the irony of both of them being so good at their secret identities that they are given the task of finding out who's leaking information when it's they themselves that are.  My favorite scene in the film comes when Colin directs a raid on a illegal deal Frank is making from the police station while also finding ways to tip off Frank about what's coming.  It's a marvelous game of cat and mouse with an amusing pay off (Frank flees the scene by boat) and we can't help admiring Colin's ingenuity, as he blows the bust  and diverts blame on to someone else, even if he is the bad guy in the story.

Given that Nicholson and Scorsase are two icons of 70's filmmaking, it's surprising that this was the first film they ever worked together on, and Nicholson responds by giving a classic, funny, over the top performance of a purely evil man as only he can.  The film opens with him rhapsodizing to the audience about  the history of Boston's organized crime and announcing "I don't want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me."  In the first scene we see him shaking down a coffee shop owner for protection money while leering at the owner's  teenage daughter, and then his acting  just gets bigger!  Scorsase allowed him to improvise, and he responds with crazy, wonderful moments like when he literally showers some prostitutes with handfuls of cocaine, or when he flashes Colin with a dildo in a porn theater.  When he appears in one scene wearing a shirt spattered in blood, it hardly seems surprising!  Even Frank's death scene is a manic bit of arm throwing and eye rolling;  Nicholson is so enthralling and amusing in the film that his somewhat premature death, although essential to the story, drains some of the life from the movie.  Fortunately, all of the other performers in the film are very good, if less dynamic.  I especially like Damon's performance, as he plays off his all American likability to hide his real identity.  Vera Farmiga is also a stand out as the only woman to wade into the testosterone pool of the movie, and she responds by strongly holding her own with Damon and DiCaprio, torn between the two men without knowing that the cop is really a criminal and the criminal is really a cop.  And I especially like the cold glare she gives to Damon when she finds out who he really is.

Lenardo DiCaprio & Vera Farmiga

If the film has a flaw, it's that it's visuals are not as striking as some as some of Scorsase's other films.  Oh, it's certainly not a bad looking film, but it lacks the stately, poetic tracking shots that can be found in his earlier films like 1990's GOODFELLAS and 1993's AGE OF INNOCENCE.  This is a bit of a surprise given that THE DEPARTED is shot by Micheal Ballhaus, the same cinematographer who worked on those earlier films.  Perhaps Scorsase felt that a plot intensive film like this should spend less time on distracting visuals, and if that 's the case, I really can't argue with that reasoning.  And honestly, saying a film isn't good looking enough isn't much of a criticism anyway.


While there were other fine films made in 2006, like LITTLE CHILDREN and PAN'S LABYRINTH, I certainly have no problem with Scorsase finally being awarded for this enthralling and thrilling film.