My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
What is with Martin Scorsese and Gimme Shelter? This is, like, the third time he uses that Rolling Stones track in one of his films. I’m not complaining, I love it, and the lyrics do apply to ultra-violent gangster epics (“Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away”)… But I don’t know, as it played in “The Departed” (twice!), it didn’t feel as natural as before. And that’s the gist of my reaction to the movie: I love a lot of it, it “fits”, yet there’s something a little bit forced about it. Another example: Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s really good here and actually pretty damn convincing as a young man struggling with alternate identities as a cop and a thug, and after three pictures with Marty, they obviously got something going on. But there it is again, that faint impression that Leo is playing at being a conflicted Scorsese protagonist, not just being it, you know?
As if that wasn’t enough distraction, there’s the fact that this is a remake of an awesome Hong Kong flick from a few years ago, “Infernal Affairs”. I’m not fundamentally opposed to remakes like brilliant “Infernal” cinematographer and all-around magnificent drunken fool Christopher Doyle (“You don’t have the integrity, you have to remake everything we’ve done anyway (…) If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don’t you think he’s lost the plot?” ouch!), I actually prefer many to the originals. Heck, I’m even a huge fan of Scorsese’s previous remake, the Grand Guignolesque “Cape Fear”. All I’m saying is that this is additional baggage: I couldn’t help but notice how “The Departed” is not as tight and suspenseful as Andrew Lau’s picture. And, again, as good as he can be, DiCaprio is no Tony Leung!
Then there’s Jack Nicholson. I love his 1970s work as much as the next guy, but I find that Jack’s grown a bit too fond of being Jack. When he’s doing comedies, this works to his advantage, but not when he’s supposed to be an insane murderous bastard. As far as I’m concerned, at least: I’m one of the rare birds who despise Nicholson’s turn as The Joker. His portrayal of Boston kingpin Frank Costello is much less unbearable than his work in “Batman”, but there’s that same showboating and smirking charm that undermine the menace that the character is supposed to inspire. I can hear you say hey, doesn’t Joe Pesci ham it up in “Goodfellas”? Isn’t De Niro ridiculously over the top in some of “Cape Fear”? You bet, but in both cases they frequently turn on a dime and become scary as hell, and that unpredictability gives even their goofier moments underlying shades of dread. Nicholson? Not so much. Even when he’s beating people up, it feels like he’s clowning around.
Phew! Almost 500 words in and all I’ve been doing is bitching! But as I mentioned at the beginning, I actually love a lot of the movie. Matt Damon is flawless as DiCaprio’s opposite, a thug pretending to be a cop. He basically drives all of the film’s action (DiCaprio’s cop pretending to be a thug mostly reacts to it, which is less compelling), and it’s stimulating to watch him juggle the constant lies and manipulations he has to make to cover his and Costello’s ass. Another thing I greatly enjoy is the whole Boston flavour of the film, with the Irish accents and all, and Damon is the best at it. He gets a great romantic subplot as well, charming the panties off a police psychiatrist played by the extraordinarily sexy and kinda daffy Vera Farmiga. She’s a brilliant little actress, too, almost managing to make us believe in the monumentally idiotic plot contrivance that has her character actually hooking up with each of the enemy undercover agents. The cast also includes Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg as DiCaprio’s handlers, whose Good Cop/Bad Cop rapport is thoroughly entertaining, and Alec Baldwin and Ray Winstone, who make the most of smaller parts. And let’s not forget about Anthony Anderson who… Heh, forget it.
“The Departed” is full of great filmmaking, like practically everything Scorsese’s ever directed. And if you don’t hold it up to his masterpieces or to “Infernal Affairs” and if you’re fine with how Nicholson tries to turn the movie into The Jack Show, you might have an easier time appreciating its undeniable qualities.