The word fuck is spoken 226 times throughout "The Departed."
More suitable as a footnote, this bit of trivia nonetheless reveals an underlying truth about this film and the power of cinema: how with moving images and the rhythm of dialogue a fictional universe can compel us to view our own reality with a certain measure of cynicism or grace. Set in gritty mean streets of Boston, "The Departed" finds Martin Scorcese, one of the greatest American filmmakers alive, return to the film genre he made popular: the crime drama. And in grand Scorcese tradition, his new work is a tour-de-force of style; it is also ultraviolent (perhaps the most violent mainstream film of the year) and totally unsympathetic in its exploration of the dark underbelly of organised crime and the people sworn to fight it.
Uneasily nestled inside this sprawling epic of trust and betrayal, of deception and loyalty, is a dramatic personal story of two young men: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), both fresh-out-of-academy cops. The twist is that they are moles each playing the other side – Costigan is an idealist undercover cop in the mafia and Sullivan is an undercover criminal who has infiltrated the police department to feed intelligence back to the bag guys! It's a highly original thematic conceit; and this is where I must mention "The Departed" is a remake of the 2002 Asian masterpiece "Infernal Affairs" (but more on that later).
Frank Costello: "Cops or Criminals…when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"
Sullivan was planted inside the police for the sole purpose of aiding Frank Costello, an Irish mafia boss played by Jack Nicholson. Costello is a larger-than-life version of the celebrity demigod we know as Jack Nicholson. In recent years, we've seen Nicholson play screen characters that have unintentionally lampooned his real life persona, his quirks and taste for theatricality; you know, the kind of things tabloid pundits take great relish in documenting. In "The Departed" Nicholson finds the perfect means to unleash his paper dragon – Costello is an unpredictable and ruthless maniac, a man so exceedingly arrogant and depraved that he could be the devil incarnate. Costello doesn't give a damn about anything: in fact, over the years he has authored a twisted view of the world, and now lives by his deviant logic. If Costello engages in crime it is not for need for power but because he really really likes it! In Frank Costello's mind his way is the only way to live. (The film opens with a great monologue that includes the line "I don't wanna be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me.") Now with old age upon him – as he faintly hears the grim reaper knock – Costello is spiteful and more dangerous than ever. To feel alive he indulges in petulant thrill-seeking like staying on the front lines of drug deals and personally facilitating grotesque murders (consider one such darkly comical moment: after Costello has shot a woman point blank in back of the head, he sniggers with a touch of disappointment: "She fell funny.") Frank Costello is a truly evil character, and yet he is strangely endearing all thanks to Nicholson's exuberance. Not one for subtlety, let's appreciate the fact that Nicholson defies precepts of nuance and complexity that most classically trained actors hold dear. Here he is a force of nature, and had the film been only about his character it would still be every bit as compelling. Perhaps better.
This brings us to the main plot thrust of "The Departed" – the fragile undercover situation between DiCaprio's Costigan and Damon's Sullivan. The tension of the film is supposed to exist in the question 'What will happen when any one of them is discovered?' We are asked to believe that Costigan is the suffering idealist while Sullivan who is the cocky son-of-a-bitch living a luxurious life also agonises (in silence) from the strain of his double-life. For the audience it's a leap of faith with the Sullivan character because, frankly, he's not very likeable. But this is to the writer and director's discredit, not Matt Damon who is effecting in the role. Similarly, despite DiCaprio's best efforts he just doesn't have enough back story and room to emote the angst and bewilderment of Costigan – the sacrifice of this character formed the basis of the original "Infernal Affairs."
For the American remake, writer William Monahan adapted the original script by Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong. It's an interesting predicament when there are two kinds of audience for a film: the first type are folks who have not seen the original and so they cannot make comparisons; the second type of audience has seen the original, and they cannot help themselves. Having seen "Infernal Affairs" – a beautiful, complex and elegant crime drama – I find myself irritated by some of the contrivances of this remake. Although Scorcese and Monahan faithfully follow the basic plot outline of the original and have made the story their own, "The Departed" lacks the emotional wallop and prescient sensibility of "Infernal Affairs." Scorcese's film is more narrative-driven and relies heavily on plot detail to fuel its engine. The characterisation feels a little shallow and designed to propel the film to denouement.
The best moments in "The Departed" are literally the ones lifted from "Infernal Affairs," the chance meetings and encounters between Costigan and Sullivan – this is when "The Departed" feels true to these characters. I have spent considerable time talking about the Frank Costello character because he is an original invention of "The Departed." As wild and outrageous and totally fucked up his character may appear, he feels real and in service to the wicked world of the film.
I can say that "The Departed" is one of the most purely entertaining films from the Scorcese canon. It has crackling dialogue, Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello, great support acting (I must single out Mark Walhberg as the hard-nosed, acid-tongued detective Dignam) and, of course, Scorcese's extraordinary director eye. But remove the Scorcese brand and "The Departed" is just another well-crafted American gangster film made using the canvas of a vastly superior Asian film. - Adnan Khan