[Screen It]

(2006) (Leonard DiCaprio, Matt Damon) (R)

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Drama: Members of the Massachusetts State Police plant an insider within a mob boss' inner circle in hopes of bringing him down, unaware that he has a mole within their organization.
Billy Costigan (LEONARDO DiCAPRIO) is a cadet at the Massachusetts State Police Academy who, unlike others such as Brown (ANTHONY ANDERSON), is singled out by Captain Queenan (MARTIN SHEEN) and Sergeant Dignam (MARK WAHLBERG) as someone who doesn't fit the ideal profile of a trooper. But they really want him to go undercover as a career criminal and infiltrate the inner circle of South Boston mob boss Frank Costello (JACK NICHOLSON) who, with the aide of his thugs such as Mr. French (RAY WINSTONE), keeps tight control his various criminal enterprises. Only Queenan and Dignam know of this plan, and after he serves some token time in prison, Billy manages to meet Costello and is then pulled into the organization.

At the same time, Captain Ellerby (ALEC BALDWIN) of the Special Investigations Unit also wants to nab Costello, this time regarding stolen computer technology he's reportedly going to sell to the Chinese. His lead man is fast rising detective Colin Sullivan (MATT DAMON) who's put in charge of a unit to nail the mobster. But what nobody realizes -- including his new girlfriend, psychiatrist Madolyn (VERA FARMIGA) -- is that he's actually a mole working for Costello who long ago befriended him when he was just a boy.

As the police get closer to arresting Costello, he begins to believe he has a rat in his organization, just as the cops learn that he has a mole within theirs. From that point on, Billy tries to get his superiors the info they need while trying not to tip off Costello, while Colin tries to play it smooth when he's assigned to find the spy within their ranks that's really him.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
The old motto about the pen being mightier than the sword is validated once again in "The Departed," director Martin Scorsese's re-imagining of the acclaimed but little seen Hong Kong crime thriller "Infernal Affairs" that was released a few years back.

Yes, and as is to be expected in a Scorsese picture, there are plenty of "swords" (guns) that do all of the dirty work in dispatching all of the seedy characters. But it's a simple pen's previous use earlier in the film (and subsequent rediscovery) that ends up having the biggest bang for the buck in how things ultimately turn out.

I never saw the original film so comparisons are pretty much moot, except to say that both pics pretty much follow the same basic storyline, with obvious changes in the particular details. There's a mobster -- played here in a deliciously over the top manner by Jack Nicholson -- who grooms a neighborhood kid (pretty boy Matt Damon) to be his inside man in the Boston bureau of the Massachusetts State Police Department.

At the same time, however, the cops -- represented by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg among others -- have taken one of their recruits (Leonardo DiCaprio), turned him into a fabricated criminal of sorts, and then had him infiltrate the mobster's inner circle. When both sides eventually figure out they have moles within their organizations, it's a race to see which figures out the identity of theirs first, all of which leads -- true Scorsese style -- into an unofficial game of last man standing.

And I mean that literally as all of the corruption, double-crossing and surprise appearances result in a fairly high body count, especially regarding characters central to the main story. As long as you don't mind all of that, the other adult material, the lack of truly sympathetic characters, similarities to other films (beyond the original, there are plenty of others dealing with cop figures deep undercover, not to mention "A Scanner Darkly" where a character is similarly told to observe what turns out to be himself), and a slightly overlong running time (at 2.5+ hours), the film turns out to be rather engrossing and entertaining.

Much of that obviously stems from the legendary director's work behind the camera, but I found that it took a while before everything started to gel (at the beginning, it feels too disjointed and episodic as all of the characters and their storylines are introduced, plus some of the background music chosen for certain scenes is thematically questionable at best). When things finally settle down, however, it really starts to fly.

Of course, having a terrific cast certainly doesn't hurt, and this offering is brimming with talent both large and small. Nicholson is as good as ever and really seems to enjoy playing his larger than life, unsavory, and decidedly politically incorrect mobster character, while DiCaprio and Damon decently play opposite ends of their similar character spectrum. Good if not exactly pleasant work from Wahlberg, Sheen, Ray Winstone, and Alec Baldwin, among others, adds to the production.

Much of their success, however, can be attributed to screenwriter William Monahan's adaptation of the original screenplay. Beyond the requisite twists and turns of a plot that isn't as convoluted as it might sound (at least until the end when all of the bodies start falling and secrets are spilled), much of that can be attributed to the terrific dialogue the scribe gives his characters to speak.

It's often as grandiose and over the top as some of the performances. Yet, in this particular venue, it works near perfectly, both in defining the characters and their mindsets, as well as in entertaining viewers with the "wish I could speak like that" movie banter (most often from Nicholson's mouth with that unique vocal delivery he possesses).

The film certainly isn't everyone, and female viewers may be put off with all of that testosterone pumping, especially since the lone lady (played by Vera Farmiga) is obviously present just to counterbalance a little of that through brief romantic interludes. Moreover, it's not Scorsese's best work (especially when lined up in comparison to the likes of "Goodfellas" and such).

Nevertheless, "The Departed" comes off as an engagingly dramatic thrill ride where the simplest of things -- a regular pen -- proves to be the catalyst for the film's pent-up retribution that, true Scorsese style, erupts on the screen in a mighty fury. The picture rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 3, 2006 / Posted October 6, 2006

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