It’s good to see Martin Scorsese back among the bad guys again, knocking heads, spraying bullets, sloshing through the bloody puddles of their conflicted Catholicism. One understands Scorsese’s determination to branch out with an occasional Hollywood biopic, like “The Aviator,” or a tony Victorian social study like “The Age of Innocence.” (What is it, after all, that the Oscar people want from him, anyway?) But Gangland is the place he can always call home; and with “The Departed,” he’s found the perfect return-trip ticket.
The movie is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller “Infernal Affairs,” and while HK fan-folk have already been whining all over the Internet about Scorsese’s presumptuous appropriation of this demi-classic, they really should get a life. Apart from its soulful performance by Tony Leung, and the gleaming intimacy of Lai Yiu-Fai’s cinematography, “Infernal Affairs” is really most memorable for its ripping plot, which Scorsese and his screenwriter, William Monahan, have revved up with enormous gusto.
The story — police mole within the mob versus mob mole within the police department — is a thing of such perfect symmetry, such wickedly self-generating suspense, that Scorsese has wisely left it intact, except at the very end. (“Infernal Affairs” fades out in a cloud of moral ambiguity; Scorsese and Monahan have opted for a more audience-pleasing moral resolution, which works fine.) The picture is a true remake, sometimes scene-for-scene. But Monahan’s terrific dialogue (“You want him to chop me up and feed me to the poor?”) adds a sizzle that wasn’t there in the original film; and with Scorsese orchestrating the movie’s considerable mayhem, the picture comes as close to being an entirely original work as a faithful adaptation probably can.
The star-heavy cast doesn’t hurt, of course. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio play Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan, two young Irish-American guys brought up on the famously mean streets of South Boston. Colin is a police-academy grad who’s been recruited to join the Special Investigations Unit of the Massachusetts State Police Department, which is striving mightily to nail long-reigning mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). What the SIU honchos don’t know is that as a boy, Colin was taken under Costello’s wing, and has been groomed ever since to one day infiltrate the cop hierarchy.
Billy, meanwhile, was recruited out of the police academy before he even graduated by a pair of top state cops, the avuncular Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the sourpuss Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). They had an intriguing proposition: a top-secret job within the SIU. All that was required was that Billy screw up in some major way, get bounced from the academy, do a little jail time, and then, with his criminal bona fides established, worm his way into Costello’s mob, which has its tentacles into everything from drugs and porn to trading in illicit military technology. Later, when Costello begins to suspect there’s a mole in his operation, he orders Colin, his inside guy on the cop side, to find out who it is. But Queenan and Dignam are the only two officers who have access to that information, and they’re not sharing. Then Billy learns that Costello has an informant inside the SIU; but when Queenan and Dignam suddenly get sidelined, there’s nobody he can pass this tip on to, because nobody else in the unit knows he’s really one of them. He’s left twisting in an increasingly chilly wind.
The movie cranks up its cat-and-mouse suspense with a series of fake-outs, rub-outs and breathless near-misses that ring your chimes with cool efficiency. DiCaprio and Damon are both very intense — DiCaprio in a way that might be called very DiCaprio, Damon in a more interesting manner. Both men become involved with a woman named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist who limits her clientele, rather oddly, to cops and criminals. Colin comes on to her in an elevator and wines her and dines her until she moves in with him. Billy, in his guise as a gangster, seeks her out for help in dealing with his feelings of doomed isolation. Farmiga, an actress especially adept at flustered emotional indecision, is an appealing lure for these two. But DiCaprio’s generalized intensity, which works in his guy-guy scenes, doesn’t translate into recognizable romantic passion. And while Colin at one point mumbles something to Madolyn about starting a new life together in a new town, their relationship lacks the visible affection that might prompt such a proposal. In fact, Colin is so emotionally opaque that it’s hard to know what he really feels about anything.
Jack Nicholson is slightly problematic in a different way. Nicholson has been a brilliant actor for so long that the part he now plays best is that of Brilliant Actor. He’s not especially convincing as an Irish-American mob boss (whatever “convincing” might be in that regard), and his flamboyant rottenness is over-illuminated by the expertise with which it’s conveyed. But he’s a delight to watch anyway. And when you see him preening in an opera box with a hooker snuggled in on either side of him, or waving around a bloody severed hand like a pork chop of dubious provenance, or chewing into a line like “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me” — well, you understand why, at the age of 69, he still makes the super-big bucks.
The faint hollowness at the top of the movie’s cast is balanced by three extraordinary performances down below. Alec Baldwin digs into the role of the SIU chief, Captain Ellerby, with motor-mouthed, ball-busting glee (he’s never been funnier). Mark Wahlberg turns his Sergeant Dignam into a figure of such monumental hostility and withering sarcasm that you almost expect him to explode with pent-up indignation. And rock-solid Ray Winstone plays Costello’s hulking enforcer, “Mr. French,” with an unusual combination of offhand savagery and glimmering bemusement. (Winstone knows how to bat a great line out of the ballpark, too. When Mr. French is told by a frightened immigrant shopkeeper that he can’t make the weekly protection payoff because of cash-flow problems, French is instantly affronted: “Make more f—in’ money!” he barks. “This is America!”)
What really whips the movie along, though (and it runs two and a half hours, about 50 minutes longer than “Infernal Affairs”), is Scorsese’s undiminished conceptual energy, which is as startling as ever in the 40th (Oscar-less) year of his career. His action montages are still marvels of eloquent compression; there’s still a trademark rush in the way he hurls you into a fight scene (like the one in which DiCaprio wipes the floor with two luckless Mafiosi); and when a body tossed off a rooftop hits the street with an extra-juicy sploosh, you can’t help grinning at the Master’s little calling card.
There is one strange misstep in the film (it involves a very unnecessary rodent). And there’s no denying that “The Departed” bears a strong resemblance to Scorsese’s 1990 “Goodfellas.” (True, the godfatherly relationship between Costello and Colin, so like the one between Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta in that earlier film, was present in the “Infernal Affairs” story; but Marty brings back the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” too — not once, but twice.) Still, the movie pulls you in and flings you around in a highly enjoyable way. Nobody does head-slamming crime rave-ups like Scorsese, and he clearly hasn’t exhausted his interest in the form. As long as he’s in the mood, of course, neither have we.
’The Last King of Scotland': Madman Reimagined
As Idi Amin, the monstrous president of the East African republic of Uganda for most of the 1970s, Forest Whitaker has possibly the meatiest role of his career, and he does something interesting with it. Amin was a loathsome tyrant: Under his murderous rule, an estimated 300,000 Ugandans (possibly many more) were shot, beaten, butchered, beheaded and massacred wholesale. But the man also exuded a sly, chuckling charisma, and Whitaker deftly incorporates this side of the late despot’s personality into his characterization. He shows us Amin’s overbearing bonhomie, his clownish propensity for kilts and cowboy hats; and then he shows us the sudden fits of cold fury welling up in his eyes. The result is to inflect the character with a recognizably human complexity without soft-pedaling his essential barbarity. It’s an arresting performance.
The movie is based on a novel by Giles Foden. (“King of Scotland” was one of the many daft titles Amin awarded himself, along with “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea,” and of course “President for Life.”) It tells its story through the eyes of a fictional young Scottish doctor named Nick Garrigan, who has come to Uganda, fresh out of medical school, in search of adventure. He arrives just as Amin, the commander of the Ugandan army, is taking over the government in a military coup. The tall, imposingly bulky general had spent many years in the British colonial army before his country won independence in 1962, and he’s particularly fond of Scots. After a chance encounter in which Nick successfully repairs Amin’s broken hand, the freshly-installed leader recruits him as his personal physician.
Nick sinks easily into a new lifestyle of tailor-made suits and Mercedes limousines, and into Amin’s orbit of lavish diplomatic parties filled with pliant local women and obsequious foreigners suppressing their vague distaste to solicit business deals with his odious administration. (The British in particular welcomed Amin’s ascendancy. In the film, one of them — played with virtuoso oiliness by Simon McBurney — tells Nick approvingly, “He’s got a firm hand — the only thing the African really understands.”) Nick had initially perceived Amin as a jovial primitive, an essentially harmless figure. But Uganda’s political culture has long been thick with plots and tribal grudges, and as Amin’s paranoia mounts, and his death squads grow ever busier, the young doctor finally has to acknowledge the horror of which he’s become a part — the slaughtered corpses strewn along roadsides, the hacked body parts stacked in the morgue, the midnight kidnappings and summary executions, the unspeakable meat-hook tortures.
“He has always been like this,” says a young woman named Kay (Kerry Washington), one of Amin’s several wives, with whom Nick has unwisely begun a sexual relationship. “He has just chosen to show you now.” Nick is beginning to contemplate escape. “I’ll wait till things get really bad,” he tells her. Says Kay: “They are.”
Shooting on location in Uganda, Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, best-known as a documentary filmmaker (“Touching the Void”), presents us with an unusually multilayered national panorama, from the red dirt and dust of the countryside, with its heat and mosquitos and elegantly long-horned water buffalo, to the unexpectedly grand colonial architecture of the capital, Kampala, where peacocks patrol the lawns and educated urban professionals move about with understandable wariness. (Amin numbered intellectuals among his many enemies.) The cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle (himself better-known for his work on the Dogme films of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg), captures it all with a grainy immediacy, generally avoiding African-movie clichés, but honing in appreciatively on a line of exuberant tribal dancers, resplendent in turbans, beads and feathers, who light up the screen with a whirl of color. (The movie also has a spectacular soundtrack, featuring such indigenous performers as Momo Wandel and Percussion Discussion Afrika. It’s available on CD, and worth hearing in its own right.)
The most evocative notes in the film, however, are struck by Forest Whitaker, whose richly stilted English accords closely with the taped utterances Amin himself left behind. The actor bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the man, too, and the ways in which he projects his character’s divided soul can be disconcerting. In a moment of affectionate lucidity, Amin spreads his big arms wide and tells Nick, “Uganda embraces you.” Eventually, Nick wonders if he’ll survive that mad embrace. In the end, Uganda itself just barely escaped it.
— Kurt Loder
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