Being a resident both of Massachusetts (life-long) and a the Greater Boston area (the past sixteen years), there are a few things I have come to expect and begrudgingly accept: 1) The Big Dig cut my commute down by ten minutes but still is a joke. 2) Most of my fellow Bostonians are rude Massholes who care about nothing but themselves (the exception being, of course, me) and 3) films set in the city of Boston are usually garbage (or, if one was to say it in Beantown speak, Gahhhhhbage!). Celtic Pride, Criminal Law, and Blown Away” need I go on?
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. You can avoid the Big Dig if you want to, my friends and family certainly are not Massholes and in the past decade, there have been some terrific movies been both set in and filmed in the state capital: Good Will Hunting in 1997, Mystic River in 2003 and Martin Scorsese’s brilliant remake of the Hong Kong crime flick Infernal Affairs, The Departed, in 2006.
Choosing the mean streets of South Boston instead of New York City this time around (much of the film was still shot in the Big Apple), Scorsese’s new flick focuses on two Massachusetts State Police officers: street-smart William Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the ambitious Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). The two have never met, but their lives become intertwined courtesy of Southie mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the main target of the State’s war on organized crime.
Costigan accepts an undercover assignment to infiltrate Costello’s organization. Sullivan, to whom Costello has been a father figure to since he was a kid, works his way up the Special Investigation Unit food chain while doubling as Costello’s informant inside the Department. For a while, Bill and Colin handle their double lives rather well (Colin a bit more than Billy). But as the saying goes, all “good” things must come to an end: both the police and Costello are growing suspicious that they each have an informant on their payroll.
Infernal Affairs was one of the better Asian crime thrillers I have come across in quite a while. With solid turns by Andy Lau and Tony Leung and an emphasis on story and character instead of over-the-top action scenes (a facet of Hong Kong cinema that got old for me about 15 years ago), Affairs drew its dramatic strength from solid performances and a fine script. It was involving without being flashy or melodramatic.
But in comparison to Scorsese’s remake, however, Affairs felt a bit” anemic. It’s no real fault of that film, which I highly recommend you rent on DVD. It’s simply a matter of having one of American cinema’s top visionaries getting hold of the material and working with a first-rate screenwriter, cast and crew to really turn it into something unique.
While displaying a more laid-back and less flashy directing style than he did on his last two crime epics, Goodfellas or Casino, The Departed still finds Marty firing on all creative thrusters. He moves the story along with great confidence and ease, all while carefully examining the story’s numerous cops and criminals without sacrificing either the film’s pacing or continually mounting tension. Scorsese once again collaborates with his usual collaborators (Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and Production Designer Kristi Zea) and pulls us into this brutal, seedy underworld of the Bay State right from the get go and refuses to let the viewer go for the next 151 minutes (which under Marty’s directorial hand feel more like 75).
Kingdom of Heaven (and Massachusetts native) screenwriter William Monahan deserves an equal amount of praise (and that Best Adapted screenplay Oscar he is nominated for) for his complex, often funny and, if you want it to feel authentic to Boston, very profane script. Monahan remains quite faithful to the general story outline, characters and themes of Infernal Affairs, but goes the extra mile to get greater depth out of both areas. He also successfully transports the story from Hong Kong to Boston, while incorporating a lot of the city’s minutiae along the way, without missing a beat. It’s a smart script that is worth more than its weight in Oscar gold.
Based on Southie crime boss and all-around scumbag James “Whitey” Bulger, Nicholson’s Costello perfectly alternates between menace and humor. DiCaprio, who should have been nominated for his work here instead of the ridiculous Blood Diamond, gives a career-best turn with his sympathetic turn as Costigan. Damon is also terrific and convincing as the snake-like Colin. Deserved Oscar-nominee Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone all offer the three leads top-notch support. Vera Farmiga, as the psychiatrist who is the love interest of Colin and Billy, does a decent job with the one role that is slightly underwritten.
Is The Departed Scorsese’s best work since “Goodfellas,” as many have stated since its theatrical release last fall? Personally, I didn’t think so. For me, that honor belongs to his remarkable 2005 documentary, Bob Dylan: No Direction Home. But damn, does it sure come close. When I reviewed the movie during its theatrical run last October, I doubted that Scorsese would finally nab the Best Director Oscar for his work here. It wouldn’t really matter in the end because awards or not, we still got an absolutely terrific work from a genuine genius of American cinema.
But now that he has nabbed the coveted Director’s Guild Award, it is looking more and more like Hollywood will finally wake up and give Marty the seriously overdue respect he deserves. While I would still give the Best Director Oscar first to either fellow nominees Clint Eastwood (Letters From Iwo Jima) or Paul Greengrass (United 93) due to the fact that I liked those films a bit more than this one, I will be among the first standing up and cheering loudly if Marty’s name is announced when the envelope is opened on the night of February 25th.
To paraphrase Nicholson’s trademark statement form the beginning of the movie, one has to ask: Blu-ray or HD DVD? When you are looking at a picture transfer using the VC-1 codec and a variation on lossless audio on both formats, what’s the difference? In doing a quick comparison between the two, there really isn’t too much of one. This is great news for owners of either format as the transfer is borderline outstanding. I watched the Blu-ray disc in its entirety, but did a quick A/B comparison with the HD DVD edition for this review.
I saw The Departed several times in the theater and always thought that the film looked a bit odd, with blown-out whites and colors not really being what they should be. Well, the VC-1 1080p encode (2.4:1 theatrical ratio) does a great job in fixing those issues while giving us a bit more. Colors such as blues, reds (Check out the shot of Jack at the opera. Now THAT is how red should look on HD!), blacks and even that ugly paisley suit Jack is wearing in one shot, all are captured perfectly in high-def. Whites don’t seem as troublesome as they did in the theater, and minute details are very, very sharp. I only noticed one or two brief instances of artifacts in the background, but overall the compression is perfectly handled. For the most part, Warner has delivered fantastic HD transfers since the launch of both formats, and the one they delivered for The Departed ranks among their best.
And hallelujah! Warner has officially jumped into the Blu-ray uncompressed audio pool (Yes, I know HBO’s box set of The Sopranos is technically a Warner release, but this is the first release directly from them)! While Blu-ray fans might have been happier if they had used last November’s release of “Superman Returns” to launch the PCM express, the inclusion of uncompressed audio on this film is still a very welcome addition (especially since they have put TrueHD tracks on select HD DVD releases since the format launch last April.)
The sound design is mostly a front-speaker affair, but the uncompressed PCM track still has a nice, full feel to it. Dialogue is as clear as a bell, as one would expect from such a recent film, as are the sounds of the city and the many instances of gunplay throughout. The combination of Howard Shore’s terrific music score and modern and classic rock tunes also come across loud and clear. Bass really isn’t as prevalent as one would hope, but once again that is due to the sound mix of the film and not the disc. A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also included and is fine on its own, but it is definitely lacking in comparison to the PCM track. If you have the proper equipment to play the uncompressed audio, I strongly recommend that you chose this audio for your Departed listening experience.
The bonus material found on the Blu-ray of The Departed is of decent quality and well worth watching, even if we HD fans are getting the short end of the stick from Warner Home Video supplements-wise. All of the extras are presented in 480p, full-frame and letterboxed with Dolby 2.0 stereo.
Things get underway with the 21-minute documentary Stranger Than Fiction (no, it’s not about the recent Will Ferrell comedy), which looks at real-life mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger and his reign of terror over South Boston before he fled in the mid “90s (he should have taken his brother, William a.k.a The Corrupt Midget, with him.) Featuring snippets of interviews with Scorsese, various cast members of The Departed, law officials, reporters from The Boston Globe newspaper that helped break the FBI/Whitey connection back in the 1990s, various locals from South Boston and even former Whitey Mob Lieutenant (and lifelong lowlife) Kevin Weeks, “Fiction” is a very interesting albeit brief (docs like this should go for at least an hour) look at a very close-knit area of Boston that had the wool pulled over its eyes by someone they thought of as a modern-day Robin Hood.
Next up is Crossing Criminal Cultures. Running approximately 24 minutes, this feature looks at the various films (among them the original Scarface, White Heat and Angels With Dirty Faces), actors (James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson) and directors (including Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa) that influenced Martin Scorsese’s various crime-themed films. Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, whose rave graces the Blu-ray’s front cover (Gosh, what a” coincidence,) is also interviewed.
Scorsese doesn’t provide a commentary track on the disc, but he does appear in the Deleted Scenes section, which runs close to twenty minutes. He gives a brief introduction of each of the nine deleted scenes (Colin and the Ballistics Instructor, Billy and the Drill Instructor, Flashback: Billy’s Father, Billy Smokes and Thinks, Ellerby Press Conference, Ellerby Questions Colin, Billy and the Shoreline, Delahunt and Billy and Colin Debriefed About Costello) that includes a bit of background on each scene and why they were eventually omitted from the final print. More often than not, Scorsese’s introductions are longer than the actual scenes he is introducing. The picture quality and sound of the scenes are fine. Rounding out the extras is the terrific Theatrical Trailer, which is also presented in 16×9 widescreen and two-channel stereo.
Now that we have talked about what is on the HD releases, let’s take a moment to complain about what is not on either HD release but is included on the 2-disc standard DVD edition: Scorsese on Scorsese. This 85-minute documentary on the celebrated filmmaker aired on Turner Classic Movies a few years back. Perhaps it’s because of space issues or perhaps it’s because Warner would have to dish out some extra coin to Turner in order to include it on additional releases (although I doubt the latter), I find it unacceptable not to include this on either HD release. Warner, if you are going to charge $40 retail for the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions, you could have stretched yourself a bit and made this a 2-disc set (one for the film, one for the extras).
If you have a next-generation home video player, you owe it to yourself to own a copy of The Departed. The picture and audio quality are excellent, the extras are of decent quality and hey, the movie itself is a perfect entertainment. Perfectly acted, superbly written and directed, The Departed proves that Martin Scorsese can make a commercially viable film without having to sell out. Recommending this one is a no-brainer.
– Shawn Fitzgerald