At one point in The Departed Jack Nicholson’s ageing Mob-god muses, “John Lennon said, ‘I’m an artist. You give me a fucking tuba, I’ll get you something out of it.’” Martin Scorsese’s an artist. You give him a potentially lazy task – Hollywoodising a recent Heat-indebted Hong Kong thriller with a hook that sells itself – and he gets you something out of it. Something so preposterously enjoyable that only when the ride’s come to a stop do you question whether this is a true Scorsese classic... or merely a masterclass in genre filmmaking.
One thing’s for certain: Marty hasn’t bristled with this much confidence since ’95’s Casino. His last two Leo-starring epics – Gangs Of New York and The Aviator – were patchy triumphs, their brilliance spasmodic, their rhythms stop-start. But this one’s all go, hurtling along the well-oiled rails of William Monahan’s screenplay. His writing’s crisp, fluent and sensationally salty, painting template Infernal Affairs a livid shade of blue (“You don’t get nothing past me, you lace-curtain Irish fucking pussy!”).
Jacking the lines up to full flavour is Nicholson; hearing that a flunkey’s mother’s “on the way out”, he retorts: “We all are... act accordingly!” Or try this bauble: “When I was your age they used to say you could become cops or criminals. What I’m saying to you is this... When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” Words that vividly compact the grit, urgency and moral ambiguity of The Departed’s Boston-based story, which pivots on two mirror-image moles: Mob infiltrator Leonardo DiCaprio and badge-carrying phony Matt Damon. While the latter’s in creepily watchful Mr Ripley mode, the former’s never looked more ready to explode, the puppyish twinkle of yore replaced by ragged, red-eyed hostility.
Bolt on some juicy support turns (Wahlberg, Sheen, Baldwin, Winstone), Michael Ballhaus’ dolly-intensive camerawork, Thelma Schoonmaker’s wetsuit-tight editing, spikes of ultraviolence... and you’re a hair’s-breadth away from vintage Scorsese. While scraping off some of Affairs’ gloss, The Departed still hinges on several coincidences. What’s more, its plot mechanics chug along at such an artery-constricting pace that some of the bushy-browed auteur’s trademark themes – identity, redemption, loyalty – don’t quite get the breathing space they deserve. As for chucking a real rat among the figurative ones for the sake of a glib titter – a bit cheesy, Marty. Nevertheless, few mainstream thrillers this side of Michael Mann’s sprawling LA takedown have got within spitting distance of the intricacy and intensity Scorsese marshals here – surely reason enough for this year’s Oscar voters (like those for the Golden Globes...) to act accordingly.