Infernal Affairs, the 2002 Hong Kong film that serves as the inspiration for Martin Scorsese's The Departed, is one of my favorite sorts of films -- a dense crime thriller that demands your attention, but rewards your brainwork with a gut-punch of a final reel. This adaptation stays true to the intertwined-cops-and-criminals plot -- it shifts the action to Boston -- but opts for different tone. Where Infernal Affairs aimed for gravity, Scorsese goes for easily digested albeit bravura entertainment.
Scorsese starts with a top-notch cast: He taps young A-listers Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio for leads; packs the ranks with Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg (an orginal Beantown bad boy), Ray Winstone and scene-stealer Alec Baldwin; and, for the first time, collaborates with Jack Nicholson, who casts his huge beady-eyed, lip-smacking shadow over the whole affair.
Watching the film's complicated plot unfold is part of the fun. Ambitious state cop Colin Sullivan (Damon) heads a special unit designed to bring down South Boston gangster Frank Costello (Nicholson), once a father figure to Sullivan. Meanwhile, another former-Southie-turned-cop, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), goes undercover as a street thug, wheedling his way into Costello's gang. Thus, Sullivan is Costello's mole within the cops, and Costigan is the cops' mole within the Costello's gang. Nobody is completely sure who is who; all loyalties are in doubt; and when a rat is suspected, both Sullivan and Costigan are imperiled.
The story flirts with class and crime (in America, it's both a success story and a blot on the landscape), but The Departed doesn't bring the heft or breadth of Scorsese's earlier influential crime dramas, such as Mean Streets or Good Fellas. But that's OK. Why shouldn't Scorsese, now in his fourth decade of filmmaking, chomp on something fun? From the opening kickstart -- the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" -- through the laughably cheesy final shot, The Departed is never less than entertaining, even at nearly two-and-a-half hours.
The film offers plenty of stylish silliness: Nicholson frequently channels his Joker character; in another scene, he is depicted as a cartoon devil, shot from below, bathed in red light and stroking his Mephistophelian beard. Scorsese the film scholar can't resist other bits of homage -- a clip from the classic Irish betrayal text The Informer here; a nod to The Third Man there.
Though the story is a corker of a premise, with detours into the perils of ambition and duplicity, you can't hope to become emotionally invested in these reputedly troubled souls. The rampant scenery-chewing and the punched-up wiseacre dialogue and wry epigrams are just too distracting. The Departed plays closer to black comedy than to a realistic, downbeat look at law and disorder. But for an enjoyable night out, there's not anything wrong with that.