Second coming of Scorsese

Whether you want to admit it or not, you’ve learned to hate director Martin Scorsese over the last decade
The Departed
Dir. Martin Scorsese; writ. William Monahan; feat. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone (R)
Whether you want to admit it or not, you’ve learned to hate director Martin Scorsese over the last decade. Sort of like how you hate Steven Spielberg these days, but, you know, less intense. Both filmmakers are still remarkably talented, no one can take that away from them; they’ve just become less … what’s the word? Reliable. You constantly get glimpses of their former greatness; often the very strength of their narrative — even when the story has failed — refuses to let you turn away, but you know, you just know it’s not the same.

Scorsese has managed to offer even fewer of these “glimpses” during the past 10 years than Spielberg: Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, and Gangs of New York pale in comparison to Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. The Aviator offered hope that maybe we were all wrong, that maybe the aging director’s old instincts were still strong, but even that failed to deliver across the board. With a return to modern crime drama, Scorsese’s latest, The Departed — starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson — seems at first blush to be a return to what the director does best: giving life to the violent world of the morally compromised. It is a revival, technically, but the story of two moles planted in opposite organizations, the Massachusetts State Police and the Boston mob, presents a strange paradox. On one hand, it’s the most commercial, mainstream Hollywood film Scorsese has ever done; and on the other, it might be his best film in 26 years.

You’ll find few of the director’s typical cinematic flourishes in this U.S. adaptation of 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs: All of his usual tricks, save his ability to illicit wonderful performances from his cast and his affection for shockingly violent interludes, seem to be safely stowed away. But that’s part of the paradox: Only a director of Scorsese’s skill could make something as big as The Departed seem so … easy. The feat is contrary to the reality of the situation, because the story of the disjointed loyalties that develop as these two moles battle to hide their identities from their superiors should have been easy. It reads like the plot of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, wherein the Belgian chop-sockey expert would have played the moles with different haircuts. In other words, The Departed, or at least the idea of it, could have produced a B-film suitable only for direct-to-video markets. Yet Scorsese manages to transform it into deceptively mainstream fare while never sacrificing the integrity of his skills as a storyteller. He made a movie that should have been terrible — ridicule-worthy even — into one of the best we’ve seen all year.

Of course, that’s in no small part due to writer William Monahan’s wonderful dialogue and equally wonderful performances from DiCaprio (who with The Aviator finally figured out how to be a leading man), Nicholson, and especially Damon, Mark Wahlberg, and Vera Farmiga as the chick both moles fall for. If Scorsese doesn’t surprise you for once, the force and charisma of these performances should.


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