By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- What goes around comes around. No filmmaker is more movie-savvy than Martin Scorsese, and he, in turn, has influenced a whole generation of directors around the world.
There have been riffs on his breakthrough movie "Mean Streets" from China, South America, France, Taiwan and the UK. "GoodFellas"? Fuggetaboutit. Urban crime hasn't been the same since.
Hong Kong thrillers, in particular, come with an abbreviated rat-a-tat-tat visual syntax that owes everything to the way Scorsese cuts to the quick.
So if with "The Departed" Scorsese now feels the need to Americanize a Hong Kong cop movie, well, it's no more than his due.
He's picked a good one, too. The 2002 film "Infernal Affairs" may not merit those "Godfather" comparisons some critics threw around, but for sheer nail-biting suspense and ingenuity, no question it's one of the outstanding movies of the last 10 years.
The irony is, in remaking a movie from the other side of the globe, Scorsese has found a way back to doing what he does best. This is exactly what people want from a Scorsese film.
Unlike recent attempts to make over Japanese horror movies, "The Departed" doesn't lose much in translation. Screenwriter William Monahan -- whose script for "Kingdom of Heaven" was more interesting than people gave it credit for -- relocates the story to Boston, where the Irish-American community is tight enough to keep the Mafia at bay and you can believe families might still disown a son if he signed up for the boys in blue.
Adhering to the age-old principle if it ain't broke, don't fix it, Monahan cashes in on the watertight structure pre-tested for him by "Infernal Affairs" screenwriters Alan Mak and Felix Chong. He swiftly sketches in a back story that places two cadets at the police academy. Sullivan (Matt Damon) quickly rises through the ranks and joins the Special Crimes Unit investigating local gangster kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). On the other side Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is busted, serves some time, and eventually joins Costello's coterie of murderers and crooks.
There's a twist, however: Sullivan is secretly working for the crime boss, and Costigan is reporting back to Detective Inspector Queenan (Martin Sheen).
Confused? You won't be -- the storytelling here is a model of smooth precision, even as the two undercover agents try to smoke each other out into the open without giving themselves away. In addition to Damon, DiCaprio, Nicholson and Sheen, the cast includes Alec Baldwin and Boston native Mark Wahlberg as detectives and Ray Winstone as a Nicholson henchman.
In a cast this loaded with talent, Nicholson pulls out all the stops to make sure he rules the roost. The battle of wits between the gangster and the chief inspector was the most engaging aspect of the "Infernal Affairs" trilogy, but it's an uneven match here. Nicholson turned down the role until it was retailored to his requirements, whereas Robert De Niro had to drop out of playing Queenan to go ahead with his own directorial project, "The Good Shepherd."
In his stead, Martin Sheen gives a lovely, modest, understated performance radiating paternalistic concern. Yet a more ambivalent, hard-boiled actor like De Niro might have been better able to resist the Nicholson steamroller.
An egomaniac's self-caricature, Costello dominates this movie just as Daniel Day Lewis's Bill the Butcher dominated "Gangs of New York." In one scene, a paranoid and inebriated Costello smashes his hand down on a fly and pops it into his mouth, seriously unnerving Costigan, and -- one suspects -- DiCaprio too. "Eat!" Costello commands, and it's half a surprise that he doesn't add "lead."
This is either great acting, or atrocious scene-chewing. Maybe it's both. But it's sure entertaining to watch.
In contrast the young pretenders, Damon and DiCaprio, seem bogged down in their own neuroses. No wonder they both gravitate to the same shrink, a potentially dicey role played with some delicacy by the talented Vera Farmiga.
His brow permanently furrowed, DiCaprio plays up angsty self-disgust, though Costello and his cronies are so despicable you'd think he take more professional pride in putting them away. Damon, meanwhile, evinces steely ambition and opportunism as the crooked cop -- but he can't allow himself to enjoy it.
"The Departed" is a tough movie with tough characters, and it looks it. Scorsese, along with his collaborator, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, ditches the high-gloss look of the original to ground this highly artificial scenario in the earthy vernacular of working-class Southies.
Thirty-odd years ago, Scorsese expounded on the ironies of a devoutly religious smalltime Mafioso in "Mean Streets." In trying to do some good, Harvey Keitel's character only made everything go to hell.
In "The Departed," God is notable for His absence -- a clergyman is quickly disparaged as a pederast by Costello -- but there's still a whiff of brimstone about the place. Corruption is endemic. Lies are everywhere. As Scorsese's bitterly funny parting shot makes clear, it's only the rats who keep the whole stinking ship afloat.
(Click here to read Entertainment Weekly's review.)
"The Departed" runs 149 minutes and is rated R.
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