Good Will Killing

The Departed

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, November 6, 2006

 

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 his mob.
 
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 actor.
 
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 sensational results.
 
Rated a very hard R.

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