Another Earful of Symmetry
I first laid eyes on Martin Scorsese nearly twenty years ago. Not actually in the flesh, of course; he was contributing to a BBC documentary about (of all things) Hammer horror and, to be honest I had very little idea who he was. The name rang a vague bell, though, as having something to do with the recent film about Jesus which had received so much helpful free publicity from the fundamentalist Christians complaining about it - for people claiming to have privileged access to omniscience, fundies are awfully slow on the uptake sometimes.
These days, things have changed for both of us. I have a pretty good idea who Scorsese is and have seen many of his films and he in turn has, er, shaved his beard off and let his hair turn a distinguished whitish-grey. One thing which has not changed is his lack of recognition by the Academy - in fact, were one to make a list of Great Still-Working Directors Who've Never Won An Oscar, his would be one of the first names to be included. The list of Great Dead Directors Who Never Won An Oscar is in its own way quite a distinguished one, including the likes of Hitchcock and Kurosawa, but on balance one gets the impression this is an injustice that everyone involved would like to see fixed as quickly as possible.
In short, this must surely be Scorsese's year. His latest film, The Departed, may be a remake, but it's a classy piece of work set roughly in the gritty urban milieu Scorsese's best movies all inhabit. The original Chinese movie, Infernal Affairs (aka I Want To Be You), was reviewed here in 2004, and the American version sticks reasonably close, in concept if not detail.
Boston gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson at his most demonic) and Boston police captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) find themselves somewhat at odds as they go about their chosen professions, and so each hits upon a cunning ruse - they will introduce a spy into the other man's organisation and thus cause him no end of nuisance! Costello virtually adopts a young man named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and puts him through school and police academy until he joins the organised crime task force. Queenan selects a young trainee with the right background, William Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) and sends him deep undercover to the point where he can plausibly join Costello's gang (an eclectic bunch of hoods from places like Aberdeen and East London, judging from the cast list). Both moles soon become aware of the existence of the other, if not their identity, and quickly realise that their lives may depend upon finding the other man first...
One is made aware very early on in this movie that some serious talent has been put into making it. The script is seldom less than polished, and while the story is intricate it is never very hard to follow what's going on. Similarly, nearly every key role is filled with a name actor doing very solid work - also appearing are people like Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg (who appears to have been Oscar nominated just for swearing a lot - by his standards it's a good performance, but by no means anything really special). The only really unknown performer in a key role is Vera Farmiga as the woman Damon and di Caprio both get involved with, and she's pretty good as well. Scorsese's mastery of soundtrack and technical virtuosity are also on display throughout. This is a distinctly superior thriller.
However, that's all it is. It's a great piece of entertainment, but no more, and in some ways it isn't even as good as the original movie (which I seem to recall I only gave qualified praise to anyway). There's never any doubt here that di Caprio is a hero while Damon is a nasty piece of work, whereas in the original the spy in the police was presented as a genuinely likeable and almost sympathetic guy. The ending has also been changed, with a much less ambiguous conclusion being inserted (some of the plot mechanics which bring this about seem rather implausible to me, as well).
But anyway, this is still a good bet for a night out - Nicholson is on particularly good form and the film suffers noticeably when he's not on screen. I'm a little surprised the film is set amongst the Irish mob rather than the mafia, but I suppose Scorsese has been there a number of times before and is wary of spreading too many stereotypes. (It hasn't stopped him casting Italian-Americans in at least two keys roles in the movie!)
In many cases, winning an Oscar is more a sort of body-of-work award than a prize for a specific film - and bearing this in mind, surely no-one would complain were Scorsese to pick one up for The Departed, even if (to my mind) it's rather less satisfying and enjoyable than either Gangs of New York or The Aviator. Better to get a richly-deserved award for the wrong movie than to never get one at all.