"When I was your age, they would say we could become cops or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this: When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"
Well it's about damn time, isn't it? I guess movies like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, or The Aviator just didn't make much of an impression on the vaunted Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It took a career of almost two dozen feature films for the Oscar committee to acknowledge what the rest of us have understood for decades, that Martin Scorsese is America's best living director. Honestly, I'd like someone to explain to me how they could have possibly voted for Kevin Costner's ham-fisted ego trip Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas. Where is the justice in that? Anyway, we can finally put all that behind us. That long-deserved Best Director trophy may not have come until The Departed, but Scorsese really earned it this time out. This wasn't just some sentimental lifetime achievement gift. The Departed is genuinely one of the filmmaker's strongest movies, and easily one of the best pictures of 2006.
A remake of the excellent Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed pits Leonardo DiCaprio as a cop undercover in the Boston mob against Matt Damon as an organized crime mole working in the police department.
Neither man knows of the other's identity but eventually both will be assigned the task of hunting out the spy in their respective organizations (essentially looking for themselves) while simultaneously trying to find and stop the other. It's a juicy concept rife with opportunities for action and suspense, played out with greater than expected amounts of psychological depth and complexity. Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen step in as the father figures on each side of the law who try to guide our main characters only to be betrayed by them. Even in such a powerhouse ensemble cast, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin wind up stealing the spotlight in terrific supporting roles.
The movie retains the basic plot of Infernal Affairs (borrowing a few elements from its sequels as well), yet has a quite different tone and style. Infernal Affairs was a very lean, tight movie packed with excitement and featuring a razor sharp focus on its themes and characters. The Departed, on the other hand, is more of a piece with Scorsese's other gangland epics Goodfellas and Casino. They're both great movies, just different. Scorsese brings an operatic scope, but is less adept at some of the basic cat-and-mouse thrills; there's a crucial chase scene involving a badly timed cell phone call that works adequately in The Departed but was a lot tenser in the original. Infernal Affairs also placed greater emphasis on the moral ambiguity of its leads, each man conflicted about whether he's made the right decisions in life. The remake flattens a lot of that out, making their motivations more straightforward. This isn't a flaw in the new movie per se, just a different approach.
The screenplay adaptation by William Monahan greatly expands upon the material, blending the structure of the original with a tremendous amount of Bostonian local color and history.
Nicholson's crime lord Frank Costello is a composite of the character's Chinese counterpart with obvious parallels drawn to notorious real mafioso James "Whitey" Bulger. The script has crackling good dialogue and vivid, compelling characters. The picture is masterfully directed by Scorsese in top form, bringing all of his trademark bravura flourishes and eliciting outstanding performances from the entire cast (though you may have to forgive the erratic "Bahsten" accents from a couple of the players, including Nicholson). The Departed is bold, exciting, riveting filmmaking through and through, and proof that Martin Scorsese is every bit as vital and relevant an artist now as he was 30 years ago.
The HD DVD:
The Departed debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video. The disc is one of those overpriced Combo releases with a standard DVD version on the flip side. A comparable (non-Combo) Blu-ray edition is also available.
Warner seems to have finally discontinued their use of that lengthy HD DVD promo at the front of earlier releases. However, the disc's interactive menus are still accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (except in cases like this where the disc specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Departed HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
A Class A movie gets a Class A video transfer. The High-Def image is very clear and detailed, with excellent visibility of subtle textures such as the fabric weave of clothing. The photography by frequent Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas, Gangs of New York) favors naturalistic colors, well captured and replicated here. Black levels are solid with very good shadow detail, lending the picture an excellent sense of depth. Mild film grain is occasionally present but well compressed and not noisy. My only complaint is the sporadic appearance of some minor edge ringing on stark contrasts, but even this isn't very severe and rarely distracts. This is fine work, if a bit shy of perfection.
The Departed HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus or lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 formats. The sound mix is surprisingly front heavy, even during the most exciting action scenes. Surround channels are reserved primarily for ambience and the very rare directional effect. That said, the audio is reproduced with terrific fidelity. Dialogue is clear and the music has very good body and presence. Gunshots have a satisfying crack, and though this isn't a particularly bass-heavy movie the shootout scenes give some powerful thumping from the subwoofer.
Warner's Blu-ray edition of the movie offers an uncompressed PCM track rather than Dolby TrueHD, and internet discussion forums have been abuzz with arguments about the superiority of one over the other.
In truth, once decoded properly a TrueHD track is bit-for-bit identical to PCM. That's what "lossless" means: No loss. With all other conditions being equal, it is impossible for one to sound better or worse than the other. Any claims that the PCM audio on the Blu-ray sounds better than the HD DVD's TrueHD track can be chalked up to either hardware differences in the quality of the decoders or Digital-to-Analog converters in the respective players, a volume difference in their output levels (louder is equated with "better" to most ears if the two tracks haven't been carefully volume-matched), or even more likely to simple placebo affect. If you expect there to be a difference, you're going to hear one whether it's really there or not.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition. All but one of the supplements from the DVD have carried over. Unfortunately, the missing piece is a good one. What's left is short in quantity but worthy in content.
Dropped from the DVD is the 85-minute Scorsese on Scorsese TV special. Technically, the documentary isn't directly Departed related, but a recap of the director's career does seem especially relevant now that he's finally won an Oscar.
- Stranger Than Fiction: The True Story of Whitey Bulger, Southie, and The Departed (21 min., SD) – A fascinating documentary about the real Boston crime lord from whom the Frank Costello character was partially based.
- Crossing Criminal Cultures (24 min., SD) – An overview of Scorsese's background, career, and film influences. Hosted by Peter Travers, the featurette shows lots of love for Warner-owned properties Mean Streets and Goodfellas, while brushing off Casino (distributed by Universal) with a single mention and some generic stock footage of the Vegas strip.
- Additional Footage (19 min., SD) – Scorsese delivers video introductions for nine scenes, explaining why they "melted away" in the editing process. Most of these are brief pieces, some shorter than the introduction leading into them. The best is a fun speech by Alec Baldwin.
- Theatrical Trailer (3 min., SD)
Side B is a replication of the first disc in the Two-Disc Special Edition DVD, containing only the trailer again.
I have to quibble a bit about whether The Departed was truly the best picture of 2006 (I favor the overlooked Children of Men for that position), but it was certainly one of the best movies released that year, easily the top pick from its Oscar competition, and Martin Scorsese very much deserved his Best Director trophy. This is a terrific movie. The HD DVD looks great, sounds damn good, and comes with a few worthy bonus features. Highly, highly recommended.
The Bourne Supremacy (HD DVD) - Matt Damon
Four Brothers (HD DVD) - Mark Wahlberg
Goodfellas (HD DVD) - Martin Scorsese
Infernal Affairs Trilogy (DVD) - Source material
The Italian Job (Blu-ray) - Wahlberg
Syriana (HD DVD) - Damon
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution – DVDTalk's HD Column
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player