When Martin Scorsese adapted the Hong Kong undercover-cop thriller Infernal Affairs, he did more than change the fun, pulpy title for the more portentous name The Departed. He and screenwriter William Monahan have taken a superb piece of modern-day film noir and inflated it to something more ambitious and epic in its scope. It's like trading up a perfectly effective handgun for an Uzi that gives off more noise, more firepower, more everything.
There's something to be said for the lean efficiency of 2002's Infernal Affairs, but The Departed still offers live-wire entertainment over two-and-a-half hours of unabashed violence, high-testosterone shouting matches and the occasional cocaine blizzard.
In most of his recent films, Scorsese has painted on huge, unwieldy canvases, but The Departed doesn't let the grand gestures detract from the guilty pleasures.
The basic premise and even some of the complex set pieces arrive intact from across the Pacific Ocean. Once we sort through the nuances of Boston's criminal history, class dynamics and police jurisdictions, we settle on a pair of police cadets. Straight-arrow Colin "Collie" Sullivan (Matt Damon) graduates and takes an elite investigative job, while brooding Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) turns petty criminal and brawling ex-con.
The first twist is that Billy remains a police officer, working under the table to infiltrate the gang of kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The more fiendish secret is that Collie is also an undercover operative, feeding police information to Costello, who turns out to be a kind of surrogate father to him. Billy and Collie could be reverse images of each other, the cop pretending to be a robber, the robber playing at cop.
Retaining Infernal Affairs' insanely intricate plotting, The Departed ramps up both characters' back stories. Collie pursues popularity and material success, moving into a fancy apartment with a view of Boston's gold-domed capitol, like Jay Gatsby looking at the green light of the American dream. Despite coming from an extended family of Irish hoodlums, Billy wishes to enforce the law to honor the memory of his poor but honest father, one of the film's "dearly departed."
With two spies hiding in plain sight, The Departed crafts deliciously suspenseful sequences, like an arms deal that takes place under police surveillance, with both moles feeding information to their bosses without blowing their cover. The film uses cell phones to particularly clever ends, with text-messaging and call-returns accelerating the plot. The screws turn further when Costello begins searching for "the rat," and the police start trying to plug their leak. When Collie's superiors assign him to find the mole, he expresses both his impossible task and a more existential dilemma: "I gotta find myself."
Scorsese specializes in exploring obsessed, driven personalities -- from Taxi Driver's vigilante cabbie Travis Bickle to Raging Bull's obsessive brute Jake La Motta. The Departed provides a kind of study in how living with deception gnaws at the soul. Billy becomes a pill-popping paranoiac, while Collie apparently suffers from impotence and intimacy problems with his psychiatrist girlfriend, Madeleine (Vera Farmiga). Like many actors of their generation, Damon and DiCaprio seem destined to always come across as overgrown teenagers, but those potential limitations serve their roles here, of people struggling to find integrity while leading dishonest lives.
Madeleine also becomes attracted to Billy, and suffers from a divided heart just like the two men in her life have divided loyalties. Farmiga comes across not as deeply conflicted, but just wishy-washy, not to mention an almost comically ineffectual therapist. Scorsese specializes in male-dominated worlds, but usually doesn't present such weak female characters.
At times you want to request the filmmaker to ease off his Big Themes and just tell the story. The Departed will linger on portraits of Jesus, quotes from Freud and Hawthorne and fountains of blood, as if there's no problem that a bullet in the head won't solve.
Yet The Departed never overheats into one of those unmoored-camera fever dreams that afflict most of Scorsese's films since 1990's Goodfellas. One of the most exciting film stylists since Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese doesn't let his zeal slip the leash here.
Would that Jack Nicholson shared some of that restraint. Nicholson captures Costello's petty irritations and sentimental streak, particularly when he briefly counsels Billy to go back to school and avoid the criminal life. Other scenes sink to eyebrow-arching self-parody, such as when he sings the Irish ballad "Mother McCree" in a thick, mocking brogue. If "Let Jack be Jack" was the strategy, it occasionally undermines the film.
Nicholson can still infuse zest into a killer line like, "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me." Overall, the director eagerly borrows back the kind of macho interplay he perfected and the likes of "The Sopranos" took from him. Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin's alpha-male cops specialize in the kind of filthy masculine banter in which "Go fuck yourself" can be a genuine insult or a backhanded compliment.
Scorsese crafts a darker ending than Infernal Affairs and suggests that any kind of deceptive life, despite noble intentions, corrupts the individual. The Departed's brooding angst doesn't hinder its bully-boy humor or heart-racing suspense, and though the film may not achieve timeless importance, Martin Scorsese seems to be having fun again.