Thursday, February 22, 2007

Oscar Nominee Review: The Departed

The Departed

Rated: R for graphic violence & language

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga,

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Run time: 1 hr, 51 mins

Nominated for:
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supposting Actor
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Achievement in Editing

Martin Scorsese takes a respected Asian thriller and turns it into an American crime classic

This is the year. Mark it down, book it, put it in the bank, count on it, 100% guaranteed. Scorsese will win his elusive first Oscar this Sunday for his work on this epic restyling of the Chinese cult classic Infernal Affairs.

How do I know this to be fact?

What better way to reward a director who not only coaxed an Academy Award-nominated performance from the man formerly known as Marky Mark but also elicited Oscar-caliber work from no less than four other members of his A-list cast? If Marty doesn't take home the golden statue for this effort then you can be sure he never will. He may even stop trying.

Scorsese and screenwriter William Monihan took the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller and transported it to modern day Boston, utilizing the same storyline- moles inside both the police department and the mob- to craft a mesmerizing tale of loyalty, deceit and big city police politics that intertwines Hollywood fiction with urban crime lore.

The story centers around two young Massachusetts police officers: one an up-and-coming detective named Colin Sullivan (Damon) and the other a smart street kid named Billy Costigan (DiCaprio.) Both will end up being central figures in an investigation targeting Irish crime boss Frank Costello (Nicholson), but for very different reasons. Before I go any further I must say that Scorsese nailed it on the names; EVERYBODY in Beantown grows up knowing at least three Sullys and one Costigan, as well as a Fitzy, a Costello and five Murphs.

As Sullivan rises up the ranks he becomes the department's eyes and ears for their intense investigation of Costello, a legendary figure who rules the South Boston area with the looks of a grandfather and the ruthlessness of a Colombian cocaine baron. The Feds and local authorities can never nail him on the myriad charges they suspect him of, mainly because he always seems to be one step ahead of the law, and for good reason- Sullivan has been a confidante of the old man since 'back in the day', when Costello took care of little Colin and his mom after his father died.

Meanwhile Costigan has been targeted by the department's undercover unit and is approached, not so gracefully, by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Detective Dignan (Wahlberg), who go out of their way to persuade the wayward Costigan to turn into an undercover agent and infiltrate Costello's inner circle.

Queenan: "Five years from now you could be anything else in the world, but you will not be a Mass Sate Trooper."
Dignan: "You got a 1400 on your SAT; you're an astronaut, not a Statie."

In what could be considered an homage to the Godfather, they made him an offer he couldn't refuse: go undercover and bring down Costello or have his name erased from police records and booted out of the department forever.

Thus begins Costigan's new life as a delinquent local thug, complete with an arranged rap sheet, fresh jail term and just enough inside connections to get him in contact with the big man himself. Once a level of loyalty is established between Billy, Frank and Costello's right hand man, Mr. French (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast) Billy becomes privy to a lot of the unseemly practices Costello has his hands in, namely extortion, murder and selling weapons-grade computer microprocessors to Chinese gangsters. The problem is, every time he tries to set up Costello and his gang for a bust "someone" on the inside of the department tips them off, and the game of cat & mouse between the government & the hoods continues with no end in sight.

It's in these scenes in the middle of the film, as Billy tries to stay one step ahead of Frank while Colin tries to keep Costello abreast of every upcoming raid that Scorsese's magic is realized. The story lines and characters co mingle and swirl around each other in such a way that you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys and vise versa. Any cop could turn out to be on the take and any criminal could turn out to be an undercover agent, and the dialogue and acting accurately depicts the incestuous relationships cops and criminals enjoyed in the hey day of the Mob in Boston. Up is down, down is up, good is bad- it all comes together to form a tangled web of duplicity.

Even the lone female in the film, Vera Farmiga's psychiatrist Madolyn, is playing both ends against the middle; she is shacking up with Colin in his tony condo overlooking the State House while seeing, professionally & otherwise, Billy. This aspect of their parallel relationships reminded me of the Michael Mann classic "Heat", where DiNiro's & Pacino's lives were always running parallel to each others and the viewer kept waiting for their paths to cross. And when they do, let's just say the sparks fly.

From this point on describing the film in further detail would spoil way too many things, and if there's one thing I'm not it's a spoiler. The cops learn they have a rat on the inside while Costigan frantically tries to escape his life in crime's inner circle before Costello wipes him off the face of the planet. It becomes a race to see which man discovers who the other is first, and the body count really rises towards the end as the nooses stars to tighten around everyone's collars. The last ten minutes of this film are filled with more "oh my god, did I just see that?" moments than a month's worth of American Karaoke auditions.

To quote my wife's reaction: "I think I'm gonna be sick."

After being snubbed five previous times in his quest for Oscar glory Martin Scorsese has come out guns blazing (no pun intended) with this first-rate adaptation of an already well-respected film. Easily his best work since "Casino" in 1995, the diminutive director did what many directors before him have failed to do: elicit career-best work from nearly every member of an all-star ensemble cast.

Many have debated/raged over why more of the actors weren't nominated, and with good reason. Nicholson gives a nuanced performance that truly carries the film. His fearless, foul-mouthed Frank is the emotional center of the movie, a fascinating ball of pensive planning and bloody execution whom the entire cast revolves like moons around a planet. Based on real life Boston underworld figure Whitey Bulger, Nicholson carries himself like the legendary Southie gangster, which makes him all the more creepy in the role.

Damon and DiCaprio both give the performances of their careers. Gone are the timid, unsure choir boys of their earlier roles replaced by slick, confident and cunning adults who think they control their own destinies until they realize it's too late. Wahlberg, the other Boston native along with Damon, makes the most of his small-but-vital role thanks to hilariously profane comments and an unexpected final appearance. Even the lesser characters played by Winstone, Sheen, and Baldwin (has he done anything bad in the last 5 years?) brought weight to the proceedings, although I must confess I was less-than-thrilled with Farmiga's performance.

But like I said to the wife, what can they do when nearly every member of the cast could have been nominated? The academy can't pick everyone (now I sound like an Oscar apologist.) Still, Nicholson should have and Damon or DiCaprio could have easliy have landed noms for their work.

Perhaps being from Boston made this movie a little more special to me. The scenes of Back Bay, the Fens and the State House combined with the (surprisingly decent) accents and Mass-related terminology (triple deckers, Rte 128, L Street and the Southie projects- a place I have frequented too many times for my liking) made me fell like I was back home again for a couple of hours. That and the constant swearing, senseless fighting, backstabbing and utter hypocrisy of the government and police forces all made me pine for the days of hitting Kelly's Roast Beef on Revere Beach while cruising around waiting for the next melee to break out.

Ah the good old days growing up in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

And all it took was a little Italian director from the New York telling a tale about an Irish mobster from Boston based on a story from a Hong Kong screenwriter to bring me back.

Enjoy your statue, Marty. You deserve it.

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