By Pete Vonder Haar | October 8, 2006

After a lackluster period piece (“Gangs of New York”) and an uneven biopic (“The Aviator”), director Martin Scorsese returns to familiar territory: the world of organized crime and the men and women who fall under its influence, either as willing participants or bitter antagonists. In “The Departed,” Scorsese once again puts us on the mean streets of…Boston…to tell the story of Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover cop given the difficult and dangerous task of getting tight with Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The cops have been after Costello for decades, and they find new hope in Costigan, whose sketchy family history opens some doors. Before long, he’s a member of Costello’s inner circle.

His job is made tougher by the presence of an informer in the department itself. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is an ambitious and accomplished detective who also happens to be Costello’s inside man. As in “Infernal Affairs,” the Andrew Lau film upon which “The Departed” is based, the action centers on the two cops’ attempts to uncover each other’s identities while protecting their own secrets. The big caper at the center of it all, something involving stolen microprocessors and the Chinese, is little more than a flimsy excuse for DiCaprio et. al. to chew the scenery.

Comparisons between a remake and its predecessor are inevitable, and it’s to Scorsese’s benefit that few people will have seen the original. “Infernal Affairs” is superior in many respects: cinematography being paramount among these, but “The Departed” makes up for it in the acting department. Nicholson finally gets to play a rotten bastard without diluting his character with any redemptive qualities, while Damon sheds his sympathetic Everyman persona for the first time since “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” He’s not quite able to convince us of Sullivan’s inner turmoil though, and the circumstances by which he becomes Costello’s man on the inside are barely touched upon, leaving us with little understanding for his character.

Costigan is more fleshed out, and DiCaprio finally seems a little more at home as a grown-up. There are more lines on that baby face, though he’s still incapable of growing much in the way of facial hair. Scorsese, having cast Leo as the lead in his last three movies, seems to be anointing him as his next Robert De Niro, and in “The Departed” we finally see some evidence that it might happen. He still doesn’t fit as seamlessly as De Niro does in Scorsese’s chosen milieu, however.

The best performances are given by Vera Farmiga – who fulfills the promise she showed in last year’s “Down to the Bone” with her portrayal of a police therapist at the middle of a wholly unnecessary love triangle – and Mark Wahlberg as one of Costigan’s department contacts. Admittedly, Wahlberg is probably only playing a slightly exaggerated version of his actual a*****e personality, but the results are still pretty entertaining.

“The Departed” is a solid effort, as Scorsese eschews some of his more overt stylistic touches for greater realism. Unfortunately for us, it’s an average story buoyed by some fine acting and a few intense action sequences. It’s also weighed down by an ending that lacks the director’s trademark ambiguity. A neat tying up of loose ends is not what we’ve come to expect from the man who gave us “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” but it’s what we get here. As in most of Scorsese’s films, the wages of sin are pretty harsh, but then, so are the wages of virtue. In fact, payment for anything appears to be a bullet in the head. So many skulls are perforated in “The Departed” you’ll think Scorsese watched “Scanners” a couple dozen times for inspiration before starting principal photography.

This isn’t to say “The Departed” is a bad movie, far from it, but knowing who’s directing it and the amount of talent he had to work with, it’s hard not to be disappointed that Scorsese didn’t knock us on our a***s. Is it his best movie since “Goodfellas?” Sure, but it falls shy of that film’s excellence.

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