Martin Scorsese's profanely funny, savagely entertaining "The Departed" is both a return to the underworld turf he's explored in such classics as "Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas" and a departure. What's new is that he's hitched his swirling, white-hot style to the speeding wagon of narrative. For all his brilliance, storytelling has never been his forte or his first concern. Here he has the devilishly convoluted plot of the terrific 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller "Infernal Affairs" to work from, and it's a rich gift.
Screenwriter William Monahan has done a terrific job transposing the story to ethnically fraught Boston. He's added many savory (and unsavory) new elements while staying true to the cat-and-mouse twists and turns of Alan Mak and Felix Chong's original script. (Strangely, there's no acknowledgment that it's a remake until deep into the end credits.) "The Departed" is the tale of two moles. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a clean-cut rising star in the Boston Police Department's Special Investigative Unit, which is determined to bring down the kingpin of the Irish-American mob, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). But in fact he's Costello's man, groomed since childhood to infiltrate the police force. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who grew up trying to escape from his working-class, criminal background, is now up to his neck in mob activities, working as Costello's trusted associate. What only two people in the world know is that he's actually a cop, planted to tip the police to his boss's every move. Desperately unhappy to be forced into the identity he tried to escape, he's becoming emotionally unraveled. The plot thickens when both sides realize that there's an informer in their midst, and the search for the rat begins. The task of uncovering the mole inside the force is assigned to Sullivan, who is the mole, while the paranoid, volatile Costigan must pretend to find the mob's Judas before he gets discovered and whacked. Complicating matters further, both men fall for the same woman, the psychotherapist Madeleine (Vera Farmiga), who doesn't know either's secret.
The symmetries and complications are pitched on the edge of absurdity, and Scorsese dives headfirst into the fray, simultaneously playing it for maximum suspense and a kind of mad, blood-spattered comedy. You often find yourself laughing and gasping at the same time. Nicholson's gaudy, racist, foulmouthed mobster, first shown only in satanic shadows, is a flamboyantly depraved villain, and Jack plays him with Jacobean gusto. But the entire cast is firing on all cylinders. The first half of the movie belongs to Damon, oozing the confidence, charm and false modesty of a master deceiver. DiCaprio, his eyes unable to mask the torment of a man whose identity is slipping away from him, dominates the second half. This is DiCaprio's coming-of-age role: he's finally put boyhood behind him. Then there's Mark Wahlberg's mad-dog Ser-geant Dignam, a cop whose default mode is raging irrational hostility; Alec Baldwin's hilariously blunt police supervisor Ellerby; Martin Sheen's Queenan, who calls the shots for Costigan and is as much his father figure as Costello is for Sullivan. It's a great ensemble, rounded out by Farmiga's smart, decidedly unconventional shrink.
"The Departed" is Scorsese's most purely enjoyable movie in years. But it's not for the faint of heart. It's rude, bleak, violent and defiantly un-PC. But if you doubt that it's also OK to laugh throughout this rat's nest of paranoia, deceit and bloodshed, keep your eyes on the final frames. Scorsese's parting shot is an uncharacteristic, but well-earned, wink.