When the Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs” came out in 2002, it was apparent at a glance that the filmmakers had a thing for Michael Mann, and his film “Heat” in particular. All sleek, cool, blue-tinged urban noir imagery and equally cold, controlled performances, “Infernal Affairs” was a tight exercise in cop-vs.-criminal suspense, with an emphasis — as in so many of Mann’s films — on the psychological similarities between the two.

The movie was a huge hit in Hong Kong, and in many other markets too, but — as usual — not in the States, where the remake rights were quickly snapped up. Mann would have seemed the obvious choice, but it was not to be; perhaps the idea of imitating his imitators seemed rather pointless. A fresh vision was required, and William Monahan’s script — which relocated the action to the Irish-catholic neighborhood of South Boston — ended up in the hands of director Martin Scorsese who has turned it into “The Departed.”

Scorsese does seem an obvious choice, in some respects. Many of his best films have been set in the criminal underworld (“Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino”), and many reflect the specifics of the immigrant-enclave experience. Still, Scorsese has always had a thing for explosive, psychologically volatile characters — think of Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” or Jack the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” — whereas the Michael Mann aesthetic veers toward more controlled, intensely focused types. True, they do explode from time to time too, but never with the hint of insanity that haunts so many Scorsese characters, from Travis Bickle right on down.

The Departed
Director Martin Scorsese
Run Time 152 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Jan. 20, 2007

Scorsese the auteur, however — the guy who weaves his personal themes and obsessions into each project — takes a back-seat here to Scorsese the craftsman. As he does once every decade or so (“The Color Of Money” in the 1980s, “Cape Fear” in the ’90s), Scorsese proves he can just simply entertain. “The Departed” may be his most commercial film yet, but the fluidity of the camerawork, the intricate storytelling, and the exquisite tension leave no doubt that you’re in the hands of a master.

“The Departed” boasts some high-profile casting to rival “Heat’ “s DeNiro-Pacino faceoff. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both play men living duplicitous lives deep undercover, but while one is a cop infiltrating the mob, the other is a criminal mole in the state police. DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a short-fuse tough from Southie’s mean streets. An aspiring cop, he’s thrown out of the academy for striking a superior before being recruited off the books by the Special Investigations Unit, headed by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg).

Costigan is tasked with infiltrating a notorious Southie gang headed by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). He serves some arranged jail time to ensure his street cred, then works his way up from street dealer into Costello’s crew. What nobody knows, though, is that Costello is pulling his own subterfuge; he has a protege, Colin Sullivan (Damon), who has stayed on the straight and narrow, and now works down the hall from Queenan and Dignam. Sullivan’s loyalties are still with Costello, and he tips him off to what the police are up to.

Here’s the zinger: Costigan doesn’t know about Sullivan, and vice versa. One night, however, a deal between Costello’s gang and a Chinese triad is raided by the police, and both sides realize somebody’s ratting them out. The cops set up a special squad to find the mole; Sullivan is confident enough of his deception to lead it. Costigan is in a more precarious position, with Costello musing ominously that the best way to solve the problem of a rat is to kill all his close associates. Costigan and Sullivan end up in a race against time to discover each other before being found out.

Scorsese elicits some great suspense from the material, the highlight of which comes when Costigan tracks Sullivan as he leaves a movie theater, shadowing him down dark streets and alleys, always just missing a glimpse of his face. Nicholson is also effective in establishing Costello as a truly menacing figure, although Scorsese lets him off the leash a bit in the last reels; particularly “Jack” is a scene where Costello impersonates a rat, of the whisker-twitching rodent variety.

Ray Winstone, always a great heavy, is quite convincing as Costello’s enforcer, the kind of guy you wouldn’t want striding up to you in a neighborhood bar. Less believable are the cops played by Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, who go a bit overboard with the tough-guy swearing. When Joe Pesci does it, you buy it; in “The Departed” it seems more like movie-cop talk than something off the street. Vera Farmig, playing a shrink that Sullivan’s dating and Costigan’s seeing, comes off as pretty superfluous, except to accentuate how much these men have in common.

And that’s where you can catch the hand of Scorsese, in the idea that, as Costigan puts it, “They used to tell us you could be cops or criminals. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference.” Perhaps catching a stray strand of karma leftover from “Kundun,” Scorsese tells the stories of the cop and the criminal in parallel, cutting back and forth, lingering on their similarities, the ease with which each man can pose as his opposite.

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