As American filmmaking has hit the doldrums, the best
Chinese-language movies, such as "Hero" and "2046," have come to rival
in quality anything recently made in America. Now, the most
critically-celebrated American director, Martin Scorsese ("Taxi Driver"
and "The Aviator"), has directly taken up the Chinese challenge. "The
Departed" transplants to Boston the subtle, laconic 2002 Hong Kong
cops-and-gangsters thriller "Infernal Affairs" about a crook who
infiltrates the police while an undercover detective worms his way into
I'm proud to report the Americans have won the face-off. As fine as
"Infernal Affairs" is, the loquacious "Departed" is an order of
magnitude more entertaining. Our boys triumph the same way we did in
World War II -- by throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, into
the fray. "The Departed," which ends up a sort of brutal action
tragicomedy, might be overstuffed, but it's certainly overwhelming.
Few productions cans boast three leading men (Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt
Damon, and Mark Walhberg) all at the peak of their games. And then
there's Jack Nicholson and his 12 Oscar nominations hilariously chewing
the scenery as the diabolical Irish gangster chieftain. Nicholson made
no effort to learn the local South Boston accent, but the ten seconds
when he imitates a rat justifies his salary.
Although Scorsese is a favorite of intellectuals, his films, when they
work, leave the critic without much to analyze other than why they work
so well. A quarter century ago, staggering out of Scorsese's most
awe-inspiring effort, "Raging Bull," a friend turned to me and,
overwhelmed but genuinely puzzled, asked, "But … what was that about?"
You could say "Raging Bull" was "about" masculinity, but Scorsese didn't
present a theory of it for you to argue over. He simply showed you the
distilled essence of masculinity.
The effectiveness of "The Departed" starts with Boston-born novelist
William Monahan's screenplay, with its despair over the
bloody-mindedness and its pride in the courage of the city's Irish.
While the Chinese film's plot seems like a clever but abstract conceit,
here it's a window into a notoriously concussion-centric culture.
Indeed, Monahan is clearly influenced by the 1975-1990 scandal in which
FBI agent John Connolly recruited as an informant a childhood friend
from a housing project in Southie (the most notorious white underclass
neighborhood in America), mobster Whitey Bulger, only to end up
assisting the hit man's lethal rise to the top of Boston's Irish mafia.
Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime personal editrix, somehow keeps
the complicated double storyline comprehensible.
Bostonian Matt Damon ("Good Will Hunting") is wonderfully hateful as the
smart, sociopathic kid from Southie whom Nicholson picks to be his mole
within the State Police.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the hero, a police academy graduate who is
psychologically bludgeoned by his superiors' good cop (Martin Sheen) -
bad cop (Mark Wahlberg) act into agreeing to penetrate Nicholson's gang.
DiCaprio failed in his first role as an Irish brawler, in Scorsese's
"Gangs of New York," but here stands out, even paired with Nicholson.
DiCaprio has the baby face of a male child star, which he was as a
teenager. Adorable little girl actresses, like Elizabeth Taylor and Drew
Barrymore, often grow up to be adorable young women, but boy
entertainers frequently fail dismally as adults.
Boys are less mature than girls, so producers have a hard time finding
talented-enough normal lads who can, literally, act their age on screen.
Therefore, they search out older boys who can play younger than their
real ages. Unfortunately for them, delayed puberty is not what audiences
look for in adult leading men.
So, how has DiCaprio survived? By being, intermittently, a great movie
The secret weapon of "The Departed" is that it can afford to relegate a
sizable star, Wahlberg, to a small role, but then bring him back off the
bench at the key moment.
While most actors these days are the offspring of artistic types who
took the Sixties a little too seriously (Damon, like many current stars,
spent some of his childhood in a hippie commune), Wahlberg was a
juvenile delinquent from working class Dorchester, near Southie.
Hollywood typically misuses him as a generic leading man (in remakes, he
has filled roles created by Cary Grant, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and
Michael Caine, none of whom Wahlberg resembles in the least). Finally,
he gets to play a thuggish cop he might have grown up to be, with
Rated a very hard R.
to The American Conservative
(because I don't post my magazine reviews online until long after
the films have come and gone)