“No one gives it to you,” rasps the opening voiceover by mobster Frank Costello (Nicholson). “You have to take it.” A crane shot swoops across the street and into a storefront – the place is Boston, the time Some Years Ago – and we see a wide-eyed kid sat at the drinks counter, straw in mouth, as Costello collects a protection fee from the quivering owner. The kid’s head is down, eyes averted, but he can’t resist a sideways glance as the menacing, charismatic man in conspicuous shades and loud clothes pauses to direct a lewd comment at the owner’s teenage daughter. She grimaces before breaking into a coy smile.
Frank catches the kid’s glance, holds it. He asks him about school, family, church, cranking out a gag (“I did well at school – it’s what’s called a paradox”) and dispensing a little wisdom (“Church wants you in place – kneel, stand, kneel, stand”) before pouring money in the lad’s hand with an offer of work. Martin Scorsese’s 21st feature is just three minutes old but it’s hooked you already. The prologue’s pure GoodFellas and it’s this angle – Marty’s remarried to the Mob! – that’s sure to excite, as well it should. But he’s also just got hitched to the law for the first time, The Departed being as much about police procedure and corrupt cops as gangsters. This is Scorsese’s Serpico, his French Connection, his Heat, and he brings the same eye for anthropological detail to the boys in blue as he does to his beloved wiseguys. The same themes, too, with both good cop Billy (DiCaprio) and bad cop Colin (Damon) caught in a violent purgatory of sin, dysfunction and alienation as they claw towards some kind of lousy redemption. This might be a ‘crime’ film propelled by slick plotting and emphatic cross-cutting, but The Color Of Money and Cape Fear have already shown how Scorsese can infuse any genre with his own indelible style. The Departed, too: its sharp edges are clouded by the ghosts of Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, Rupert Pupkin and Sam Rothstein.
Another ghost, forever hovering, is the movie on which The Departed is based: Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. That it’s only a ghost and not anything as physical as a blueprint is because Scorsese and Boston-born screenwriter William Monahan have made it their own, the former insisting The Departed is not a remake, the latter claiming that he avoided seeing the film and worked only from a translation of the Chinese script.
The pitch is the same in both movies and they ask identical questions about identity – where does the performance end? – but the similarities stop there. Andrew Lau’s stylish 2002 original plays like John Woo or Ringo Lam with less blood; this plays like Scorsese with buckets of the stuff. Heads explode. Cars explode. Speakers explode, music blaring as bursts of especially colourful profanity, homophobic jibes and racist slants turn up the volume still higher. And while Michael Ballhaus’ mobile camerawork is less dazzling than it was on GoodFellas, less rich than on The Age Of Innocence, it’s always urgent: a neon-drenched chase sequence and a jud-jud-juddery gun battle squeezing a few last beads of sweat from, respectively, expressionistic framing and staccato freezeframes. Even better, Ballhaus’ use of a flat, almost monochromatic, palette makes sudden sense when the so-red-it-stings blood begins to flow, gush and spray.
But as Scorsese once noted of Sam Fuller’s movies, “The emotional violence is much more terrifying than physical violence.” And so we have Nicholson’s crimelord (a riot, if a touch OTT in true Big Jack style) unravelling as he seeks to paint his twilight years crimson, and DiCaprio and Damon becoming ever more desperate as their game of cat-and-rat draws tighter. Think the set-up is already fiendishly complicated? Then factor in this: Damon’s Colin is assigned to find the mole in the police department, à la himself, when his superiors get wise to the leak. The irony. Or this: Colin’s girlfriend Madeleine (Vera Farmiga, terrific) is a shrink charged to treat DiCaprio’s Billy... with heated results.
It’s little wonder the pair go into mental meltdown. And if Damon is somewhat subdued throughout, DiCaprio fully justifies his place as Marty’s new muse, rewarding the monobrowed auteur’s faith with The Departed’s most dangerous turn. If this, as the director has hinted, truly is Scorsese’s gangster exit, he can leave with his head held high.