Sunday, February 24, 2008

Second Chance Film Club: The Departed

It's been a while since I've done one of these so I thought it was about time I bothered to keep my own feature alive. This time, I'm looking at last year's The Departed, winner of Best Picture at the 2007 Oscars and the film which finally won Martin Scorsese a tiny bald statue for Best Director. As ever, spoilers abound in the following passages and, considering that this is a film with a fairly twisty plot, you really shouldn't read on if you haven't seen it.

Over the last 6 years, there have been a number of steady, recurring bouts of media hysteria surrounding the release of any new Scorsese film; Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed all arrived in cinemas to much acclaim with numerous critics frothing at the mouth and tripping over each other to praise them the most (in one instance a critic tripped over another critic's froth and broke a rib, such is the fervor that develops around a Scorsese film). Almost all of them proclaimed that each film would be 'the one' and that 'this could be Marty's year' and, for two of the three films released during that time, these predictions proved ill-founded. It's not hard to see why, though. Gangs of New York, whilst great to look at and featuring some wonderfully vital direction and performances, is an opulent mess. The Aviator losing is harder to explain since it really is a fantastic film (I'll be doing a SCFC on that in a few weeks, I was really wrong about that film) but had the misfortune of being up against Million Dollar Baby, a film so depressing and, ahem, ''issue driven'' it couldn't possibly lose, even if it's really not that good a film and Clint Eastwood is a hugely over-rated director.

So, the Departed was 'The One', it finally won Scorsese an Oscar, but did Scorsese win because The Deaparted was a great film, or was this the award he should have won for Raging Bull or Goodfellas? In short, is The Departed really all that good?

In short, no; no film is as good as you remember The Departed being the first time you watched it. Hell, having sex on ecstacy whilst skydiving isn't as good as you remember the Departed being (I'd just like to point out that I've not tried that particular combination but you have to admit it does sound pretty fun).

So, what's good about the Departed then? Well, it's Scorsese's most complete film in ages, by which I mean that it holds together very well, is fairly clear of stylistic excess, and has a solid core plot that drives things along at a furious pace. It also boasts some great performances from its two leads, with Matt Damon in particular imbuing his role with a wimpy, sleazy, bastardiness but somehow managing to seem sympathetic at the same time. There's also great support from Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and, my personal favourite, Mark Walhberg, whose prolific profanities are a joy to behold and have a sort of poetry to them.

The plot is also very engaging, based as it is on the comparatively sparse but no less tense Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. In both films a cop is sent undercover into a gang (Andy Lau in the original, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed) at the same time that a mole for the gang is put into the police (Tony Leung in the original, Matt Damon in The Departed). What then unfolds is a cat-and-mouse game in which each of the men is trying to get on with their assigned task, discover who their counterpart is and evade detection by those around them. The Departed is a good hour longer than Infernal Affairs and there is surprisingly little flab added on in that time. William Monohan's additions to the script, particularly the addition of a strong female character who both men fall in love with (Vera Farmiga), add to the film rather than detracting from it. Sure, that particular addition is terribly contrived but it's such fun that you don't really notice.

However, there are some excesses in the script that can't be ignored. Chief of these is that of Boston mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). I like Jack Nicholson and I think that he's a very fine actor but in this he just grates, something which I put down to two things; the respective role in Infernal Affairs was fairly minor so an awful lot of stuff is crammed in for Frank to do so that they could stick Nicholson on the poster and fact that near enough every line of dialogue he delivers comes across as either half-baked philosophy or forced cliche. There are moments when his charm comes through and the power of the character become apparent, one scene in which he manages to complete tear Damon down over the phone is really masterful, but a lot of the time it just doesn't work. This problem doesn't seem to crop up with the rest of the characters, so maybe it's just down to Nicholson's delivery. Either way, it's one of the most glaring problems with the script.

Still, The Departed is definitely Scorsese's most cohesive film in some years, as well as his most easily enjoyable, but it's also his least ambitious and this, in many ways, is where my reservations about the film as a whole stem from. Starting with Kundun, his biopic about the Dalai Lama which seemed to bemuse a lot of people upon its release in 1997, the last ten years has seen Scorsese embark on some of his most disparate, frustating yet fascinating projects; Kundun was a thoughtful and beautiful film; Bringing Out The Dead was a darkly comic take on his and screenwriter Paul Schrader's earlier Taxi Driver; Gangs Of New York, whilst deeply flawed, was one of the most ambitious films of his career and this phase of his career culminated in The Aviator, a film that managed to be incredibly ambitious, emotionally involving and fairly cohesive in turns of narrative. Not all of these projects were successful, financially or artistically, but they were all interesting and seemed to represent the work of someone who, after having a couple of hits under his belts, was using his clout to pursue more personal projects or ones which he thought were special.

The Departed, in contrast, feels like something he took on for the cash and to ensure he could get another decade or so of projects made. That he made a film which is much better than the average cop/criminal thriller in terms of artistry and sheer style, and which is very entertaining in its own right, is a testament to Scorsese's skill as a director, but ultimately it doesn't feel like a film that has a lot of love in it, which is not something you could say of Gangs of New York. That's not necessarily a bad thing; the auteur theory is based on the notion that directors can take material that they aren't particularly involved with and make it their own, so in one way, The Departed is a sign of Scorsese's genius. In another way, it's no way near as good as his more personal films, the film does lag whenever Jack Nicholson gets more screentime than his character really needs and the use of 'Gimme Shelter' on the soundtrack, as well as the similarities in themes and style, does cause you to compare it to Goodfellas.

Ultimately, The Departed is not as good as it seemed at the time, but I still think it is a first-class piece of entertainment that is delivered with style and a level of artistic integrity that you don't usually find in cop thrillers, even if you do get the sense that Scorsese could have been plying his trade with more interesting material. Did it deserve the Oscar? Probably not in its own right, but as a belated form of recognition for his work in cinema, it's a pretty fine piece of work.