The Departed – 4.5 stars

This is a meaty, engrossing crime picture, right in Martin Scorsese’s wheelhouse.  Jack Nicholson is a Boston crime boss who has a quasi-adopted son/mole in the Boston PD (Matt Damon).  In that same department, a small unit (headed up by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) is set up to get Nicholson, and they recruit a police academy trainee (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has one leg in the tough streets of Southie (his dad’s side) and another in the upper crust of Boston (his mom).  Meanwhile, a second task force, headed by Alec Baldwin, is also trying to get Nicholson and can’t get a handle on why they are thwarted at every turn.  DiCaprio is “erased” from police files, purposely gets arrested, and infiltrates Nicholson’s organization, which is populated by colorful, brutal goons (Ray Winstone, David O’Hara), in order to identify the mole.  Meanwhile, Damon keeps screwing Baldwin’s pooch.

A cat-and-mouse hunt ensues, as Damon searches for DiCaprio and vice versa.  Damon is also dating a psychologist (Vera Farmiga) who treats cops and ex-cons, including DiCaprio.

Almost to a person, the performances are rich and rough.  DiCaprio is now in full bloom, grown out of the Titanic baby face and having just previously offered two nuanced and substantial performances in The Aviator and Blood Diamond.  Nicholson is bloody and funny, and, well, Nicholson.

All the supporting characters are strong and natural save for Farmiga (she’s too feminine for the role and when she becomes infatuated by a clearly unstable DiCaprio, it is unconvincing) and Wahlberg, who, ironically, was nominated for best supporting actor.  He yells an awful lot and delivers a few speeches, but volume and line memorization do not deserve a nomination.  Wahlberg seems uncomfortable and masks it with rage.   And once again, Matt Damon does all the heavy lifting and gets none of the credit.  His turn as the fatherless boy who is being manipulated by Nicholson is alternately frightening and heartbreaking, yet he remains a very charming sociopath.

The picture whizzes by.  Scorsese effortlessly paces what could have been a morass of a story, providing his signature quick-cut expositions to perfectly chosen music (The Stones, Badfinger, Allman Brothers).

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4 comments
  1. Cal said:

    I thought Wahlberg was excellent, but it’s an easy part. Agreed about Damon. It’s incredibly hard to play a weasel. Nicholson wasn’t good, but Winstone and the rest of the crew (including the undercover cop) were outstanding. Sheen had his best movie role in years.

    Oddly enough, this is my favorite Scorcese movie (Casino is second, Age of Innocence third). Most of his movies have intensely unlikeable protagonists and I just don’t enjoy watching them.

  2. That’s a good point about it being an easy part, but so was Baldwin’s. I found Wahlberg very stilted whereas Baldwin fit right into the ensemble. I was wary of Nicholson, but in the end, I think he made the right choice just to play a mean, shrewd Jack.

  3. Cal said:

    Wow, my sense was exactly opposite. I thought Baldwin seemed a bit stilted and ill-at-ease, while Wahlberg just jumped off the screen in a crowd-pleasing part. I don’t think Nicholson should have been in the film. Someone a little less over the top would have been better.

  4. Pincher Martin said:

    Robin Williams made a funny comment about Nicholson’s role in The Departed. He said Jack was so cool that he was the only actor in the movie to play a Bostonian without the accent. He just played crazy Jack.

    I don’t think he meant it as a criticism, but it came across to me as one anyway.

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