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Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006 03:13 pm

Scorsese scores with The Departed

Commanding performances overshadowed by Jack Nicholson

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The DepartedRunning Time: 2:29Rated R

Martin Scorsese’s films are never less than visually compelling. His last two big screen efforts, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, benefited from the filmmaker’s trademark attention to detail, as well as his ability to elicit complex performances from his cast while telling a compelling story splashed across a vast canvas. Yet, as much as I admired these two films, they lacked the sense of immediacy and vitality that makes Scorsese’s best work (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) burst from the screen. Fortunately, this quality is evident from the first frame forward in his latest effort, The Departed, a blistering examination of corruption in which each of the film’s main characters falls victim to his own inescapable moral failings. Scorsese is working in familiar territory as he examines the themes of loyalty, betrayal, guilt, and personal honor with a degree of intensity that harks back to his best work.

Based on the Chinese hit Infernal Affairs, Scorsese’s film, which takes place in Boston, follows in the wake of one Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), an organized-crime boss with a reputation for ruthless dealings. Costello becomes the No. 1 target of Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen), head of a special investigative unit in the Massachusetts State Police, and Agent Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), who leads a federal task force on organized crime. Their best efforts to apprehend Costello have been for naught, mainly because they are unaware that one of the mobster’s most trusted men, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), has infiltrated the department and is feeding him information from the inside. However, what Costello doesn’t realize is that his newest lieutenant, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), is part of Queenan’s team, working deep undercover.

With the cast assembled here, it comes as no surprise that The Departed is an acting showcase. The film features the finest screen acting on display so far this year, but the cast toils in Nicholson’s shadow. His Costello is a larger-than-life character, a man of enormous appetites and no conscience. Nicholson has always been a master of bringing a sense of danger to the parts he plays, and that ability is put to good use here. He dominates the film, and it’s a joy to behold.

Nihilistic, brutally violent, and effectively employing plenty of gallows humor, The Departed is a masterwork. It’s good to have the veteran director back on the cinematic mean streets where he belongs.

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