If you saw INFERNAL AFFAIRS you know the storyline. Undercover cop vs. undercover gangster. There’s alot of stories about cops going undercover in gangs, but this one also has a member of the crime family who entered the police academy and moved up the ranks as a mole for his gang. So now both traitors are well situated and it starts to get obvious to both sides that they have a mole in their midst. And the moles are given the job of finding out who the mole is. It could be called LOS TOPOS.
Mr. Scorsese took that premise and moved it to Boston and told his own story about contemporary Boston criminals. Scorsese’s young associate Leonardo Del Caprio (looking more like Benicio Del Toro every year) plays the cop who pretends to get kicked out of the force, does some time and then joins Jack Nicholson’s gang. Matt Damon plays the cop who’s really working for the gang. We first see him as a little kid getting money from Nicholson in a diner. And the kid they chose is a dead ringer. They even taught him how to cock his eyebrow like Damon. Somebody’s gonna have to find a young Ben Affleck doppelganger and these two can go on the road. Or they could do THE YOUNG JASON BOURNE MYSTERIES where the camera shakes around while he’s fighting some kid in a treehouse.
People are calling this a return to form for Scorsese, but it’s more like a return to genre. Come on man, THE AVIATOR wasn’t good enough for you? Of course it’s great to see Scorsese back doing a current day gang movie. And this is a great movie. But don’t get TOO excited, it’s not GOODFELLAS. There’s alot of funny macho dialogue that makes it alot of fun, but it’s more stylized I think. GOODFELLAS seems more authentic. THE DEPARTED is more just for laughs. This probaly isn’t a masterpiece. But it’s a really fuckin great thriller.
And in a way that’s what’s cool about it. It’s a huge cast and a very complex story, but for Scorsese these days it’s almost minimalistic. It’s a pretty straight ahead suspense thriller without the period trappings. He even stays away from the multiple narrators gimmick he’s so good at. The only narration is from Nicholson at the very beginning, and that actually kind of bothered me because the rest of the movie never seems like it’s in his point of view at all. (And why does he gotta use the n-word right at the beginning when there is nothing else about black-white relations in the entire movie? I guess this was before Michael Richards went nuts.)
I loved the movie from beginning to end, but for me it wasn’t the instant grab you by the ear and drag you along that you get in most Scorsese. We have a great collection of movie stars here but it takes a little bit to forget they are movie stars. You got Matt Damon and Leon Del Caprio of course, but also Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, etc. Mark Wahlberg gets alot of the funniest lines, and his Boston accent is really his, but to be honest it was hard not to think of him as Mark Wahlberg. But the biggest one is Jack Nicholson. I mean this is a good role for him, it’s a fun role, his best in a while. But it’s Jack Nicholson. It’s the Joker. Good old crazy Jack, we all love how irrascible that fucker is. I don’t know, he almost makes it, but at the end he’s still Jack Nicholson, he is not an indelible character like Paul Sorvino has done or Robert DeNiro has done or even Daniel Day-Lewis as Robert DeNiro in GANGS OF NEW YORK.
And Martin Sheen. I don’t know if it’s from doing that president show or what, but he isn’t BADLANDS anymore, he seems like such a teddy bear now. There’s a good cop/bad cop thing going where Wahlberg is the asshole boss and Sheen is your nice grandpa. So the one kind of unintentionally funny part of the movie was after something bad happens to Sheen, Nicholson’s guys say something like, “That cop was tough, we really had to work him over.” And I thought come on man, that lovable old man in the windbreaker wasn’t that tough.
And by the way, I’m so proud of Anthony Anderson for being in this. I know he already had a better role in HUSTLE & FLOW, but still. The guy is in a Martin Scorsese movie. This guy did three Andrzej Bartkowiak movies teamed up with Tom Arnold. He did MY BABY’S DADDY. He did KANGAROO JACK. He did AGENT CODY BANKS 2. He did more than one SCARY MOVIE sequel. And that’s just scratching the surface. So when Anthony Anderson was in this a little bit, and especially when he appeared somewhere near the climax, I wanted to congratulate him. Good job, Anthony Anderson. You did it. Up from the bootstraps. The American dream.
I don’t remember INFERNAL AFFAIRS too well. This takes the basic storyline and I remember the stake out scene with the two opposing moles sneakily trying to communicate with their masters. There was a female psychiatrist in the movie but she wasn’t that big of a part, although the hot chick with the gun on the cover of the American DVD might be supposed to be the psychiatrist, I’m not sure. Anyway, I could be wrong but I seem to remember INFERNAL AFFAIRS having some of the ol’ conflicted loyalties where they start to care about the side they’re ratting out. That is always a great conflict in movies like HARD BOILED and DONNIE BRASCO but (whether it was in the original or not) it’s kind of cool that it’s not in this version, since it’s in every other undercover movie.
Most of the characters in this movie are pretty likable. You root for Leon, but you also like his co-workers who he’s betraying. Matt Damon is more of a dick, he’s obviously a bad guy and he’s got kind of this AMERICAN PSYCHO lifestyle, wearing a tie and calling his friends fags and living in an amazing loft that he shouldn’t be able to afford. But it’s still kind of tense whenever he has to pull off a fancy maneuver to get out of a jam. So you end up just kind of watching these different pieces on the chess board, moving around trying to be the one that survives.
Watching the movie again on DVD I had the same feeling I did the first time I saw it. It starts out pretty good. It stays good. It starts to get really good. And then by the end it’s fucking GREAT. It pulls you in slowly, tightens the screws, squeezes the Charmin, battens down the hatches. By the end you’re not taking sides, you’re just on the edge of your seat watching the pins spin around wondering if any of them will stay standing.
* * * BIG ASS BOSTON BAKED BEAN STYLE SPOILIES COMING UP – IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE GO PAHK THE CAH OR SOMETHIN (ha ha get it, Boston) * * *
Since the movie keeps getting better and better as it goes along, mathematics dictate that the best part of the movie is the end of the movie. I think the way things end up is ingenious. It really seems like Leon has it figured out, he has Anthony Anderson to witness everything, he’s gonna get through this by the skin of his teeth. And there’s that moment in the elevator when Matt is all bluster, “oh I can’t WAIT to see you explain this to a Suffolk County jury, this is gonna be fun,” and then he can’t even keep up the front anymore, two seconds later he just breaks down and asks Leon to shoot him. Leon has it in the bag and then out of the blue a dude shoots him in the face.
So then we follow Matt for the last stretch and we see how despite winning the game, his life is shit now. At the funeral he sees his own girlfriend crying over Leon and there’s that great shot of him thinking about it, and you can practically pinpoint the moment when he remembers Leon saying something about his only contact with the world was a police shrink. And later as Matt’s coming into his fancy apartment with his groceries he tries to say hi to a neighbor’s dog in the hallway and the dog ignores him. He gets dissed by a dog! And you let your guard down because of this little joke but then he steps into his apartment and there’s Mark Wahlberg as Dignan, the cop we haven’t seen since he went on leave. And you know he means business because he’s wearing booties on his feet. And then the greatest moment of the whole movie: Matt says, “Okay.” Not “Oh God please, don’t kill me!” or “Get it over with you bastard! Shoot me!” Nothing like that. Just, “Okay.” He’s just been dissed by a dog, he has not been able to put his groceries down, and he recognizes that this is finally the end of the road. Check mate. Okay.
A note about Mark Wahlberg in this movie. I like that dude alot so I’m happy that he got an Oscar nomination. But to be honest I think they’re giving him too much credit, they’re rewarding him for having most of the funny lines in the movie, like “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.” He was definitely more deserving in some of his other performances like BOOGIE NIGHTS and I LOVE HUCKABEES. That said, he’s a fun character and I’m excited about the idea that they might make a sequel around him. I never saw the INFERNAL AFFAIRS sequels and I know one of them is a prequel so I’m not sure if this would have anything to do with those or not. And I’m not even sure if Dignan is still a cop at the end of this one – we hear that he is on leave, we also hear that he resigned, and I’m not sure if that second one was a lie or not. All I know is, put him in those booties again.
By the way what kind of a loser hasn’t seen this movie yet, am I right? we are cool because we saw it.
* * * OKAY THE SPOILER PART IS OVER IN MY OPINION * * *
Since I am finally writing this review and it’s a few days before the oscars, I might as well throw in a soon-to-be-dated discussion of that topic. Pretty much everybody in the world expects Mr. Scorsese to finally get his best director oscar for this one. And I’ve heard alot of people say that he shouldn’t get it, it’s just a career award (like how Forrest Whitaker is gonna get his because of GHOST DOG, in my opinion) and since THE DEPARTED is no GOODFELLAS or TAXI DRIVER or what have you it would be kind of sad for it to win.
Well, I don’t agree and let me tell you why. This award is for directing. It’s not necessarily for being the deepest director or the director who just created the best movie of his career. It’s for the act of directing a movie really well, and that’s what this guy did. You gotta consider, Scorsese didn’t write this movie, he didn’t even create the story since it’s a remake, but if somebody else directed it it would not have been the same movie at all. You can see that this is the work of a master filmatist, a teller of visual stories, etc. Remember when Steve Soderbergh got two nominations in the same year, one for ERIN BROCKOVICH and then he won for TRAFFIC? I kind of thought BROCKOVICH deserved it more because that was the more mainstream movie, it was kind of a generic manipulative stick it to the man type of crowdpleaser in alot of ways but it was the way he directed it that made it transcend that and really work. That’s the theory I’m working on and that’s why I think it would be pretty cool if Scorsese won for this one. (Cuaron shoulda been in there for CHILDREN OF MEN though.)
Anyway, not to be controversial but I would just like to make one observation about Martin Scorsese: that there is a guy who can fucking direct. Way to direct, Scorsese.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.