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600full-the-departed-photoI admired Martin Scorsese’s last two movies, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, but I didn’t love them, and Scorsese is the kind of filmmaker who should inspire fanatical praise. The last two were handsome, big-budget epics but it felt like he was making movies to please Academy voters and not himself. The Departed is a departure from those sleek studio efforts, and places the director firmly back where he belongs, on the mean streets surrounded by gangsters, duplicity and violence.

Based on a Hong Kong film called Mo-gaan-do (titled Infernal Affairs in North America) The Departed, relocates to Boston and stylishly tells the story of two men on opposite sides of the law. Both are cops, one deep undercover in the organization of mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the other an ambitious state trooper who appears to be on the straight and narrow, but is actually an employee of Costello’s. Both men, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon respectively, are tormented by their duplicitous lives, feeling trapped between the truth and lies, but neither has a way out of the situation. DiCaprio is so far undercover that officially he doesn’t exist, and Damon’s character owes a huge dept of gratitude to Costello. Their lives intersect both professionally—as they play cat and mouse with one another—and personally as they unwittingly become involved with the same woman, a beautiful therapist played by newcomer Vera Farmiga.

Scorsese skillfully tells this story about loyalty and men who lead dark, dangerous lives, infusing each frame of the film with excitement. He has created an unpredictable atmosphere, where the threat of trouble hangs over every scene. Not since 1995’s Casino has he so effectively embraced the down-and-dirty world of crime. The film is a study of contradictions, both in character and style—Scorsese mixes fluid camera work with hard-edged editing; his script is both darkly funny and brutally violent.

The movie’s large ensemble cast of Hollywood A-listers do great work. The youngest members of the above-the-title cast, DiCaprio and Damon, each set the bar very high. This may be DiCaprio’s first truly adult role, a man who can’t trust anyone and who battles his jangled nerves to do the right thing. Damon plays off his clean-cut image, expanding on his recent work in Syrianna and the Bourne movies, to present a good-guy façade that is being eroded by paranoia.

The rest of the cast, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Mark Walhberg (as the foul-mouthed Dignan) are stellar, but if there are two performances that look Oscar bound they are Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin.

Baldwin plays Ellerby, a task force head out to get Costello with gusto. The character is a mix of steely-eyed determination and goofy comedic relief, and Scorsese keeps him in check, allowing to walk to the edge of the cliff without ever jumping over into overacting. It’s a fine line and Baldwin walks it expertly.

In a film packed with great performances—it’s as if everyone was putting in extra effort for Scorsese—Jack Nicholson still manages to steal the show. Costello is his King Lear, a tyrant on the edge of madness, but with Nicholson’s burning eyes. Closing in on 70 years old he is still vital, still scary and still capable of blowing younger, prettier actors off the screen. There is a reason why some people are legends and in The Departed we are reminded once again why Nicholson is acting royalty.

The Departed finds Scorsese in top form, and is the coolest and best movie so far this year.

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