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03/12/2007 - THE DEPARTED

DVD Review: THE DEPARTED by Tom McCurrie

When Martin Scorsese's Irish gangster flick THE DEPARTED was released last fall, it received almost universally lavish praise. Critics considered the movie a return to form for Scorsese, reminiscent of his crime classics like MEAN STREETS and GOODFELLAS, while audiences similarly loved the flick, earning it nearly $130 million at the North American box-office alone. The Motion Picture Academy was also charmed by this bit of black comic blarney, awarding it Best Picture, Director, Editing and Adapted Screenplay at last month's Oscar ceremony.

But now that THE DEPARTED, directed by Scorsese and written by William Monahan, has just been released on DVD, maybe enough time has passed since its theatrical release to give it a more objective look. And while that objective look shows that THE DEPARTED may be a good movie, it also shows that it is far from a great one.

Let's start with the good stuff first. THE DEPARTED has a fresh, suspenseful and highly-entertaining premise: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an undercover cop in the gang of Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the criminal kingpin of South Boston. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is one of Costello's men, undercover himself in the Massachusetts State Police so he can tip Costello off whenever the cops get too close to nabbing him. Neither "mole" knows the other's identity, but both know the other exists, so each races to expose the other before he is exposed himself. (It's true this premise isn't exactly fresh since it was based on the Hong Kong film INFERNAL AFFAIRS, but most Western audiences haven't seen this picture so the premise might as well be "new.") Other pluses are the excellent performances from a fine cast (with the exception of Jack Nicholson - see below), a fast pace despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time, several shocking, late-in-the-game twists and some wonderfully crackling dialogue that puts the hard into hard-boiled (Police Camera Tech: Who...are you? Dignam: I'm the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.)

Nevertheless, THE DEPARTED has just enough wrong with it not to merit "classic" status. Unlike GOODFELLAS, THE DEPARTED doesn't spend enough time establishing why Sullivan turns to a life of crime, even to the point of becoming a mole for Costello in the State Police (one quick scene of Costello buying the young Sullivan some food isn't enough). Also, the love triangle between Costigan, Sullivan and a psychiatrist played by Vera Farmiga lacks emotional credibility: one, because it feels too convenient that both main characters would fall for this woman at the same time, and two, because Farmiga simply doesn't have much chemistry with DiCaprio or Damon.

But what really undercuts the film is the villain of the piece, Irish mob boss Frank Costello. Jack Nicholson too often plays him comically over-the-top (when Costello complains about a "rat" in his gang, he literally makes a face like a rat sniffing around for some cheese), taking us out of the "reality" of the movie since a real-life gangster would never act that way. Worse still, Costello simply isn't that threatening an antagonist - we never see him do anything so psychotically nasty that we're in constant fear of him. So we're not in constant fear of Costigan being exposed as a cop, either, which considerably reduces suspense. What THE DEPARTED could have used was a villain like Tommy Udo in the film noir classic KISS OF DEATH from 1947. Udo wasn't just a gangster - he was a sadist who not only giggled when he killed people, but also, in the film's most shockingly memorable scene, pushed an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death. A scene like this in THE DEPARTED would have made Costello so formidable a bad guy that it would have been more understandable why everyone in South Boston was terrified of him. As the film is now, Costello comes across as just another garden-variety, albeit wacky, mobster who doesn't seem to justify his all-powerful reputation.

THE DEPARTED may be Scorsese's best movie in years, but as its DVD release confirms, it definitely falls short of the real gangster classic in his canon: GOODFELLAS.

Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finally finishing up a really awesome novel.


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