With THE DEPARTED, Martin Scorsese has taken a good film, the Hong Kong minor classic INFERNAL AFFAIRS, and remade it into a movie that is as bloated as it is bland. Gone is the dramatic tension of a slick action flick, gone is the suspenseful psychological subtext that pondered the nature of identity, subsumed into something as inflated with its own sense of epic destiny as the Hindenburg was with hydrogen and just as doomed.
The premise is two rats, the term is used compulsively throughout the film, both cops, one good and one bad, who have each infiltrated the other’s organization. Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio and his wildly flaring nostrils) deep undercover in the operation of Boston’s primary crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, playing himself once again and mugging for the camera for good measure). Colin (Matt Damon trying hard to make his wholesomeness work for him), taken under Costello’s wing at a tender age and is now working for him from inside law enforcement. Never mind that no one else inside law enforcement has picked up on this association that is anything but discreet, the actual police work depicted makes Nancy Drew look sophisticated. And never mind that while the two guys don’t know one another, they do have a girlfriend in common. Played as a shapely and willing blank slate by Vera Farmiga, she’s the department’s psychiatrist, who also sees hardened felons, which is Billy’s cover.
Sure, the film looks good, with Scorsese whipping the camera around with the same wild abandon as the protagonists exhibit as they sling ethnic slurs and assorted physical mayhem. There is a rich visual texture to the sense of place and reams of back story for the leads. Alas it is in a script that uses the punctuated equilibrium approach to storytelling. Each individual scene is a set piece eminently suitable for inclusion in an actor’s workshop handbook. The relationship of any one scene to any other is tenuous such that they could almost be played in a random order and achieve very much the same effect. In and of itself, this is not a fatal flaw. There is such an excess of expository dialogue that it all but talks the audience to death. Forget the explosions, the bursts of gunfire, and the blunt force trauma with which the film is rife, the most deadly thing going on here is the endless round of oblique conversations everyone has. Couple that with actors who are for the most part posturing for Oscars rather than creating characters, creating an experience that is stupefying rather than the intended electrifying. The two exceptions are Mark Wahlburg as one of Billy’s handlers, whose suspicious nature and work with profanity are both refined to an fine aesthetic, and Alec Baldwin, as a puckishly cynical police honcho given to dunking his head in a bowl of ice water. As for Nicholson, he is just one more embarrassingly heavy-handed device Scorsese uses, in addition to actually having a rat cross the screen at one point, he also throws a red light on Nicholson at one point just to make sure that no one in the audience has failed to grasp that he is properly identified with Satan, even after seeing him smoosh Billy’s already broken hand to a further pulp. And that was when he was trying to ingratiate himelf with Billy.
There is much sound, even more fury, in THE DEPARTED, but not enough to fuel 2 ½ hours of pronouncements such as “my hands never shake” and yet another contemplation about the Irish experience in America that is neither illuminating nor germane. Not unlike the film as a whole.