It's been one hell of a long time since Martin Scorsese really hit the mean streets. Sure, the director of such nervy, blood-soaked classics as "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" took a gallant stab at sepia-tinted historical revision a few years back, transposing his Mafia fetish to mid-19th-century Gotham. But "Gangs of New York" - an overlong mope about the nascent gangsterism of immigrant America's poor, tired, huddled masses - was a diffuse and distinctly uncharismatic affair, despite Scorsese's beautiful recreation of 1850s Five Corners and Daniel Day Lewis' riveting portrayal of a sociopathic gang leader. And "The Aviator," Scorsese's nod to the bent genius of millionaire Howard Hughes, was pretty to look at and all, but it lacked substance and psychological heft; it was just the sort of glimmering celluloid Twinkie the Academy loves to reward with statues. Neither of these were bad films - Scorsese isn't capable of making a truly bad film - but each in its own way lacked some essential spirit, a cohesive feeling of joy or purpose or narrative pop that would match the formal excellence of Scorsese's vision. They were for the most part empty gestures, giving one the suspicion that Scorsese had somehow lost his way.
Advance word that Scorsese's next project would be a remake of the Hong Kong police drama "Infernal Affairs" generated a modicum of hope among fans of the director's earlier work. It seemed a canny move, as well as an odd sort of homecoming: Scorsese's work, with its highly stylized and daring camerawork and penchant for grizzly, explosive violence, has had a profound influence on Asian filmmaking. And the cast for "The Departed" - Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Jack Nicholson (especially Nicholson, who, strangely enough, had never worked with Scorsese) - only upped the ante and amplified expectations that a return to form was in the offing.
Violent, gritty, streetsmart and lightning paced, "The Departed" is less a return to form than a rebirth for Scorsese, a highly entertaining film that moves with an uncommon vitality and sense of purpose. It's the loosest, most freewheeling film Scorsese has made in a decade - loose in the sense of an unwinding, a release and liberation from anxiety and whatever tension of expectation that's held the director uncomfortably in its grip. In this sense, the film is both relaxed and propulsive. It proceeds with confidence and an air of inevitability, each step the right step. And like "GoodFellas" 16 years ago, "The Departed" combines the brutal logic of the underworld - the codes and conduct and patois of the so-called criminal element - with a kind of amoral comic perspective, creating a narrative that moves freely between the story's tragic and comic elements.
More than anything else, however, the film is plain fun. Scorsese, firing on all cylinders, has created the sort of old-fashioned movie that inspires awe, admiration and an excitement for the possibilities of the art.
In its basic elements, the plot of "The Departed" is fairly straightforward: DiCaprio plays a cop sent undercover to infiltrate the Boston mob, in particular to root out big man Frank Costello, played by Nicholson; Matt Damon, who like Ray Liotta in "GoodFellas" comes under early influence of the mob, is sent by Frank into the police force; this doubling is complicated as both men come under the care/influence/romantic sway of police shrink Vera Farmiga, and both are sent on a chase after a clutch of nuclear transmitters that Frank wants to sell to a Chinese mob. Beyond, or perhaps beneath, this basic structure occurs a series of twists and turns that serve to tangle the story, and part of the pleasure to be had in watching "The Departed" derives from the film's excruciating build-up of suspense. In fact, it's far and away the most suspenseful movie Scorsese's has made; from the opening scene "The Departed" is suffused with a delicious atmosphere of anticipation, a feeling that at every cressendoing moment the shit is going to hit the fan.
But it's the array of terrific performances that really makes this a great movie. DiCapprio - who seemed wildly out of place in "Gangs of New York" and only slightly less so in "The Aviator" - gives a powerful performance of a cop about to crack up, and Matt Damon is equally strong as DiCaprio's mob-tied doppelgänger. Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg are just about perfect as a pair of cops on Frank's trail.
Some critics have complained that Nicholson is simply playing Nicholson, hamming it up in another sleepwalking performance as the charismatic, crazy-haired, oversexed sociopath with the googly eyes and sharkbite grin. Yes, and? This is a little bit like complaining that Barry Bonds hits too many home runs; what's more, it's not true. Nicholson's performance is actually oddly restrained; moreover, he is unmistakably a Scorsese character, filled with the kind of disjointed, glowering menace the director has elicited before from the likes of DeNiro and Paul Sorvino. And who but Nicholson could out-Murray Bill Murray in a scene involving a pile of cocaine and two whores? Enough said.
There are moments when "The Departed" trucks a little too easily in Scorsese doing Scorsese - "Ah, yes," you may think, "I remember that scene from 'Casino'" - but it's hardly the case that the director is resting on his laurels. Scorsese covers a lot of new territory here (hell, he's moved the action to Boston, for Pete's sake), and he tackles the material with such an obvious love of filmmaking that the energy is infectious. The movie pulses and vibrates with an undeniable spirit, a pure joy that, in a way, celebrates everything that's great about cinema. "The Departed" leaves you excited - rather than queasy - about what Scorsese might do next.