I shouldn't be able to get away with calling Gangs of New York and The Aviator overly ambitious projects, for if Martin Scorsese can't be ambitious about making a movie then who can? Nevertheless, both films were overlong, stuffed with good ideas and at least one amazing performance but not as great as the sum of their parts.
So while Scorsese can tackle any subject he wants, it's still reassuring to see him back in his old milieu, the modern mob film, a genre he more or less established and with which he seems totally at home. Here Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan adapt the acclaimed Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, setting it in Boston, where Irish-American mobsters led by one Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, delivering a performance for the ages) match wits with the Massachusetts State Police Department.
The story's gimmick is that Costello has two young apprentices, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio, finally fitting into the big shoes that Scorsese keeps handing him) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and that Billy is an undercover cop posing as a thug... whereas Colin is a thug, indebted to Frank since childhood, who has become a cop.
In a sort of cinematic yin-yang symbol, Billy is the spot of white in the field of black and Colin the spot of black in the field of white. They mirror each other so well that Scorsese even gives DiCaprio and Damon - who have similar builds - the same haircuts and wardrobe. Yet neither of them is aware of the other's existence, much less his hidden agenda, which creates the fine Hitchcockian tension of the film. Who will be found out first, and by whom, and when?
This taut story - despite an ultimately unnecessary romantic subplot - is what makes The Departed a cut above Scorsese's last few films, with genuine shocks and double-crosses, especially during the last fifteen minutes or so, that are sure to keep audiences buzzing long afterwards. It's brutal at times, but fun.
Eschewing the self-conscious camerawork and high-decibel rock soundtracks that he's become famous for, Scorsese allows the actors and the script to do most of the work, along with Thelma Schoonmaker's acrobatic editing, which at many points is the real star of the show.
There's violence aplenty, but it lacks the gruesomeness of other Scorsese pictures, limited mostly to quick, efficient shots to the head. Most of the real violence comes in the often scathingly funny dialogue (Alec Baldwin has some especially good lines), the vicious acts of betrayal that fill the film's third act, and in the general character of Frank Costello, a gleefully diabolical creature who sees his own effortless cruelty as a way of doing business.
The Departed isn't quite a perfect movie - there's that messy love affair junk with a police psychiatrist that, while handled well, still feels a little contrived to start with, and Colin's motivations remain murky (why exactly is he so beholden to Frank that he's willing to risk everything, especially his unspoken political aspirations, to help out this lowlife? This is never satisfactorily explained) - but it's still the best American crime film I've seen in a while, and promises lots of jolts to even the most jaded moviegoer.