Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 18, 2006

The Departed

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” is certainly an improvement over “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”, but it is by no means as good as some of his earlier classics. Indeed, it is somewhat sad to reflect on the fact that the last of these–“Goodfellas”–is now 16 years old.


Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon in “The Departed”

Some critics have likened “The Departed” to one of Scorsese’s B-movie type entertainments, like the 1991 “Cape Fear”. Considering the overweening ambitions of something like “The Aviator”, which attempted (and failed) to create a mythos around Howard Hughes, there is some relief in the fact that Scorsese has returned back to earth.

“The Departed” is a movie about gangsters and the cops who pursue them in the city of Boston. The script is an adaptation of “Infernal Affairs,” a series of Hong Kong films that involve a somewhat unlikely symmetry. A cop is asked to go undercover in a “Triad” gang, while the same gang has sent one of its members into the police department to help them fend off raids. The title is a play on the words “Internal Affairs,” the police subdepartment that investigates misconduct from within the ranks. This is where the gangster infiltrator has ended up and from where he conspires to identify the undercover cop in his boss’s gang.

In Scorsese’s retelling, the undercover cop is played by Leonardo DiCaprio and the gangster/cop is played by Matt Damon. Damon is particularly good as the amoral Colin Sullivan. This is not the first time he has played such a character. In the 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” his eponymous character kills a playboy and assumes his identity. With his cold but boyish charm, Damon is eminently suited for such roles.

DiCaprio is becoming something of a Scorsese regular, after having starred previously in “The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York”. He seems to have picked up where he left off in his role. As the pill-popping, stressed out undercover cop under psychiatric care, he is basically not that different from the basket case he played in the final third of “The Aviator”.

Far more problematic is the gangster boss character played by Jack Nicholson, his first appearance in a Scorsese film. There is little similarity between his Frank Costello and his Hong Kong counterpart in “Infernal Affairs”. To exploit Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing talents, screenwriter William Monahan decided to incorporate elements of “The Batman” Joker in the Frank Costello character. Like the Joker, Costello is a wellspring of sardonic patter delivered in trademark leering, raised-eyebrow Nicholson fashion. The audience at the AMC Theater on 42nd Street was beside itself with his performance, laughing almost hysterically. Unfortunately, their joviality was not limited to the moments he was on screen. They began to laugh at the more sober moments of the film as well, a depressing reminder of the steady decline of American civilization.

Despite its borrowing from Hong Kong cinema, this is no Quentin Tarentino “Kill Bill” exercise. The esthetic is entirely Scorsese–not John Woo. This means that the emphasis is on dialogue rather than action. It also means that scenes have an operatic quality as the deliberately slow pacing of this overlong film (152 minutes) serves to underpin. At its best, “The Departed” has the same kind of fascination as “Goodfellas”, with the Boston Irish filling in for the Italians in New York. If you enjoy watching characters getting clubbed over the head or shot, then you will enjoy this film.

Although judging what amounts to a pulp entertainment in social or political terms seems besides the point (one might as well complain about all the blood in a zombie movie), critic Armond White makes some interesting points in his New York Press review:

“Clearly no one in Scorsese’s circle of yes-men advises against his obsession. But perhaps, someday, a critical history of Scorsese’s fall from cinematic greatness will reveal how the trailblazing director of Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver went from chronicling the amorality of the neighborhood tough guys he grew up envying, to turning that covetousness into a flamboyant cinematic pissing match. In his early films, Scorsese gave the corruption of youthful potential a tragic undertone derived from the realities of urban depravation. But his film nerd’s appropriation of tough-guy swagger and unapologetic cruelty won him dubious cultural status. Crowned the poet laureate of the urban underclass, he embraced the role and under-performed it—becoming American cinema’s thug laureate.”

Frankly, I am far less worried about Scorsese becoming the poet laureate of gangsters than I am about him making another movie along the lines of “The Aviator”. It was astonishing to see Howard Hughes treated as some kind of hero. Whether Scorsese recognizes it or not, he led a life that would shame the most degraded Triad gangster in Hong Kong.

1 Comment »

  1. Indeed, it is somewhat sad to reflect on the fact that the last of these–”Goodfellas”–is now 16 years old.
    C’mon Louis, what about Casino(circa 1995). Sharon Stone’s performance is fantastic. I think she won a golden globe that year? Bringing out the Dead wasn’t that bad either.

    I hear that scorsese really does wants an oscar, now matter what. He should get a life time achievement award at least, but it would seem that isn’t enough.
    Remember the dirty campaign run by Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein to discredit
    the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’, as he was pushing scorsese’s terrible ‘Gang’s of New York’ that year?
    Perhaps more money means less quality, as the size of the films he has wanted to make, in his old-age, have increased insize he has lost some control over those projects. In ‘Gangs’ as well as ‘the Aviator’ he had to snip hours from his original versions. If i had enough money i would give it to him and tell ‘do as you will’. However, with scorsese being closer to the end of his life than the beginning, he perhaps is trying to do too much, getting into bed with hollywood inorder to fund them, and hence the quality of his work has suffered.

    Comment by atlas — October 23, 2006 @ 4:31 am

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