director: Martin Scorsese
starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen
My initial reaction to seeing the trailer for The Departed last year consisted of both excitement for a new Scorsese picture and reluctant pessimism at the line-up of all-stars in the cast. Rarely do you see a Hollywood flick these days with an “all-star cast” that doesn’t end up disappointing. The unfortunate part about being a well-known, successful actor is that they become so well-known that it’s nearly impossible to see them as just a character. Case-in-point: Jack Nicholson. You catch one glimpse of him in the trailer with his patented eyebrow raise and you see him as the larger-than-life Hollywood icon instead of a Boston mob boss. The same goes for Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon, Leo DiCaprio and the rest of the cast. At first glance, it’s impossible to get the past that they’re huge Hollywood actors that signed up for the project to pad out their resumes. Thus, I haven’t seen the film, which came out October 6th, until just last night on DVD.
Shame on me for not recognizing the fact that the reason these guys are all successful, well-known icons is that they’re pretty damn good at what they do. The opening scene, with a Nicholson voiceover, goes from distracting to enveloping as it paints the broad strokes of the dark, gritty underbelly of South Boston–Nicholson’s Frank Costello as its’ thug-in-chief. We’re steadily introduced to the rest of our all-star cast of characters and their surprisingly convincing Bah-stan accents. Once you get past the intial adjustment period of seeing these stars with goofy accents, their talent takes over and you’re caught up in the story. After all, aren’t Boston accents goofy in reality, anyway? (Apologies to all Boston readers with goofy accents.)
Said story centers around a pair of Boston state troopers taking decidedly different career paths. Damon quickly rises the ranks in a special investigative unit taking down organized crime targets like Frank Costello despite simultaneously being an informant for Mr. Costello himself. DiCaprio goes undercover to infiltrate and make his way up the thug ladder in Costello’s organization to eventually take the whole crew down. Without giving away too much more, the film is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between Damon and DiCaprio’s characters as they first become aware of each other and then try to uncover the other’s identity before they’re discovered themselves.
Martin Scorsese is aces here, and while it’s not his best work, he’s certainly deserving of a long overdue Best Director Oscar. His last couple of flicks have been a bit meandering and over-edited in their early stages (particularly Gangs of New York), and The Departed is no exception. He’s guilty of a bit of “over-directing” early on, using bizarre and unnecessary camera moves and angles coupled with some herky-jerky editing as he sets up the story. It’s amazing, though, that just as that over-directing becomes apparent to the viewer, he flips a switch and you see the master at work. He’s not necessarily going to wow you with angles or dramatic pans, but Scorsese knows how to shoot his actors in such a way that you’re completely captivated by the action onscreen, whether it be a balls-to-the-wall gunfight or a quiet conversation between two characters. The actors have a hand in that as well, but Marty’s got just as much to do with getting the best performance out of them as they do themselves. It’s riveting once the story gets moving.
And I should acknowledge those actors again; they’re all exceptional. I’ve never been a DiCaprio fan, but I guess I see why he keeps getting work. He’s good here, and he has to be, as the audience is essentially living the story from his point-of-view. Nicholson succeeded in making me forget his Hollywood Jack persona, despite the fact that he was doing just that with a Boston accent in the movie. You come to believe he’s the sadistic, paranoid head of a crime organization–that he’ll kill whoever he has to in his mad pursuit of power and money. There’s an all-too-brief scene about two-thirds of the way through the movie that features Jack, a bowl of coke and a hooker (stay with me) that shows how he can use that iconic persona to firmly make an audience believe in his character.
I shouldn’t have to urge anyone to see a Martin Scorsese flick–you’re virtually guaranteed to see some quality filmmaking–but you should definitely check his latest out if only because such quality filmmaking is hard to find these days. I’m no longer taking Scorsese for granted–and I certainly have to try and refrain from judging a movie by a 2-minute trailer. I was dead-wrong with my initial impressions of The Departed, and I won’t make that mistake again.