Old Jack City
by Thomas Delapa
Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and a cast of seven robbing hoods. The Boston underworld. Director Martin Scorsese. Now that you've seen the bad-ass ads for The Departed, I know what all youse wiseguys are thinking: a mob movie in the tradition of GoodFellas.
Well, you can fuhgetaboutit. Redolent of four-letter words, Scorsese's flatulent Boston massacre doesn't amount to hill of beans. Count me among those who wished to depart from The Departed before it was over.
Perhaps still smarting from The Aviator's Oscar snub, Scorsese has landed with bloody vengeance back on his home turf in the gangster flick. But this is easily his worst film since Cape Fear. How bad is GoodFellas Does Boston? So bad that even Jack Nicholson is a deadly bore.
When we first see Nicholson as sleazy gangland boss Frank Costello, he's slithering into a dark cafe, sporting a grizzled goatee and armed with insinuating sexual language. Nicholson's accompanied on the soundtrack by the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," helping to cue us in that Costello is, by golly, the devil. At least Scorsese mercifully delivers us from "Sympathy for the Devil."
In William Monahan's script—lifted from the 2002 Hong Kong hit, Infernal Affairs—Boston is a ratty hellhole where you can't tell the difference between the crooks and the cops. That's literally true when it comes to Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), a troubled rookie policeman who's assigned to infiltrate Costello's gang. Costigan's cop doppelganger is Colin Sullivan (Damon), who in actuality is Costello's top mole in the state police.
Scorsese and Monahan pile on the bodies and four-letter words with a nihilistic glee that might even cause Tony Soprano to run to confession. Somewhere among the scumbags, dickheads and fucksticks (that's a new one), Monahan's lamebrain script wants to connect the corpses in a study of how gangland crime is rooted in a perverse sense of family obligation. Gee, and I thought I was just watching a Scorsese snuff film.
Beginning with his miscasting in Gangs of New York, DiCaprio has let his own fixation with Scorsese as his screen daddy take him down a dark Steadicam path. With the exception of an admirably subdued Alec Baldwin, all the actors in this movie seem to be juiced on testosterone shots from Floyd Landis' doctor. The unwritten mobster dialogue here isn't "Top of world, Ma!" but rather, "Look how tough I am, Ma, I'm in a Scorsese movie!"
Not only is Scorsese repeating himself in self-parody, but even his usual flair for pop music sounds a death knell. Alongside "Gimme Shelter" (twice) and Patsy Cline's "Crazy" (twice), composer Howard Shore can only contribute a limp background score. Veteran cinematographer Michael Ballhaus' camera is as dead as Costello's numbing parade of victims, including one who falls splat from five stories up at DiCaprio's feet.
Buried within Monahan's script is a relevant 9/11-era theme about the absurd turf wars waging between city, state and federal crime agencies. In one attempt after another to collar Costello, the police bungle the arrest, looking like the Keystone Cops in plainclothes. That Costello may be an FBI informant further blurs the lines of cop and criminality, adding to the witches' brew.
But Scorsese lets his cast play everything at a fever pitch in overheated confrontations that boil over with random acts of brutality. Loosely based on the notorious mob exploits of "Whitey" Bulger, The Departed is no departure for Nicholson, who riffs on all his past Satanic-majesty roles, from The Witches of Eastwick to The Shining.
An ugly 2 1/2-hour whack-fest, The Departed left me hoping that Scorsese will never darken the screen with another gangster movie again.
Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 10/12/06
[Postscript: The Departed won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for 2006.]