Martin Scorsese returns to gangland in The Departed, a slick, soulful retelling of overrated Hong Kong actioner Infernal Affairs. The cast is 24 carat: Leonardo DiCaprio is Billy Costigan, an undercover cop playing crim in a Boston crime gang run by Jeff Costello (Jack Nicholson). Across the thin blue line, Matt Damon is Sergeant Sullivan, a crim playing cop on Costello's payroll. As cat chases mouse (or rat chases rat), Scorsese delivers his best mob movie since Goodfellas.
From the moment Jack Nicholson's terrifying gang boss pads across screen to the chorus chords of The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter ("It's just a shot away"), you can nuzzle back into your seat, safe in the knowledge you're in for a ride. The themes are (self) betrayal, (schizophrenic) identity and (impossible) redemption; the violence is vicious (desert boot beatings); the supporting cast stunning (Wahlberg, Winstone, Baldwin - no, really). As DiCaprio and Damon push themselves to the limit, their characters' fragile sense of self literally disintegrating on-screen, this is a thriller that thrills.
"A POST-SOPRANOS GANGSTER MOVIE"
And yet... And yet, there are gnawing issues: the plot hangs on enormous contrivances; then there's Nicholson. Scorsese tries to reign in Jack, but how can he stop a force of nature? Occasionally a triumph, occasionally a ham, Nicholson has the quirks (Rat impressions! Fly munching!) of a brilliant, ageing actor chiselling another "Here's Johhnnnny!" moment on to his tombstone. It (almost) unbalances everything. But then that's the point. This is a post-Sopranos gangster movie (Vera Farmiga's psychiatrist caught between good cop/bad cop) about psychosis, schizophrenia and madness... A masterpiece? Not quite. It's just a shot away.