Seeing how this film has marked the long-overdue Academy acknowledgement of director Martin Scorsese, Judge Dennis Prince felt the coveted Oscar statuette should sport a mocking gunshot to its head.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's say you have no idea and leave it at that, OK? No idea. Zip. None. If you had an idea about what we do we would not be good at what we do."
The world is well aware of the acknowledgement given to The Departed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, lauding it with the most prestigious awards: Best Director (Martin Scorsese) and Best Picture. Films earning these highest achievements typically command another look, or, in some cases, a first look from film lovers. This often provides an easy marketing opportunity to re-sell the picture to the home video market, DVDs being quickly retrofitted with Oscar-boasting banners and splashes (see 2004's Crash). In this case, though, The Departed seemed to be making its multi-tiered pitch ahead of Oscar, released in as many as six versions when it debuted to the home entertainment market on February 13, 2007 (that includes widescreen, full screen, a special edition, a limited "metal" edition, and two high-definition editions). No one's complaining about this, given how Warner's premature self-congratulations ultimately became well-earned, but now it's a bit daunting to determine which edition to look over after the annual awards hoopla has died down. Well, if you're in the market to see The Departed in the best possible presentation, look no further than this high-definition incarnation, brought to you via the Blu-ray medium.
Facts of the Case
It's a high-tension case of "who's spooking whom" as the Massachusetts police enlist the covert services of an unlikely State Trooper elect, Billy Costigan (Leo DiCaprio, The Aviator), to ferret out a department informant working for Boston mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt). Costello actually "grew" his inside man, trooper cadet-made-Undercover Investigator, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon, The Good Shepherd), having enlisted Sullivan as a boy and literally paying his way into the UI section to ensure all crime jobs would go unfettered by the meddlesome Massachusetts men in blue. Costigan is sent undercover by Covert Operations chief Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now) and caustic Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg, Invincible) to infiltrate Costello's gang and gain the mob boss' trust in order to rat out the UI informant. But when it becomes apparent to both sides that there are moles amongst them, the race is on to determine which one will be exposed first.
Without a doubt, The Departed is highly deserving of the Best Picture nod, delivering a story that's immediately compelling and appropriately unbalanced as it quickly establishes Costigan and Sullivan in their opposing situations. Director Scorsese wastes no time in telling which is which and to whom each character will offer their allegiance. By skipping the whole gamesmanship element of tasking the audience with figuring out who the moles are, Scorsese instead provides full opportunity to explore the lead characters fully, and therefore engages the viewer adeptly in the desire and deceit each must bear. Forget about character arcs, because each is pretty much set and dried before the film proper gets underway (with the film's title not being displayed until the 18-minute mark). Equally effective is the editing style; it's a jagged and often jumpy method that reflects the polarization between the two warring factions—the Massachusetts police and the Boston mob—and within the lead characters. Both characters, however, are pawns. Scorsese is clear about this as he keeps the aging combatants—Costello and Queenan—always looking over the shoulder of the younger "soldiers." The most effective element of the film, then, is the use of the rather Hitchcockian approach of divulging most information early and generously, then forcing viewers to squirm as they wonder what will ultimately cause the damning revelation of the true identities of Costigan and Sullivan. For this reason, The Departed can survive most critics' spilling of spoiler information (save for the final resolution) since Scorsese freely offer up most details without reservation. And, for this reason, The Departed emerges as a refreshingly engrossing experience that dismisses "celebrity draw" in proper deference to well-developed narrative. Again, the Best Picture award was bestowed without much room for contention.
As far as the performances go, this is where the film wobbles a bit. Certainly, this looks to be a high-visibility demonstration of the potential "passing of the torch;" aging performances effectively ushering forward the next generation of box office notables. While Jack Nicholson is almost universally tops among his Hollywood peers, something about his role as Frank Costello doesn't impress. Essentially, Jack is Frank and Frank is Jack and it's difficult to separate the actor from the character. This works against the film since it's easy to sit by and basically watch Jack be Jack. Unlike the superiorly underplayed performance by Paul Sorvino as mob boss Paul Cicero in Goodfellas, Frank Costello appears to be mostly a characterization of Jack himself. On the other hand, Martin Sheen disappears fully into his role of Queenan, an energetic yet tiring officer who accepts that he must engage the vigor of his younger cohorts if he's ever to bring down the Boston mob.
Speaking of the youthful contingent, Leo DiCaprio surprises us with a genuinely complex performance as the chameleon-like Costigan, given pardon for his wavering accent through a narrative device that explains his characters perpetual duality, straddling the upper crust and lower end elements of Boston since boyhood. Although there's little doubt that Leo has delivered several successful performances in the past, he's still struggling to get out from under his former pin-up boy celebrity. Here, he delivers a compelling performance under the guiding hand of a legendary director in order to potentially shake his bubblegum boyhood. Leo can actually take notes from his co-star, Mark Wahlberg, the former hip-hop hooligan who has effectively erased his stifling ties to his erstwhile Funky Bunch to emerge as a serious performer to watch in the years to come. Matt Damon is somewhat less impressive in his performance, firstly for lacking authenticity as an East Coast-bred character. This is puzzling, really, giving the actor actually hails from the area yet his dialect seems mottled and inconsistent. Whether he was attempting this intentionally or whether his previous suppression of his Boston accent has forever altered his speech patterns, he simply seems to struggle where DiCaprio does not. To this end, Matt Damon looks much like Matt Damon attempting to look and sound like a character named Colin Sullivan. Naturally, the narrative demands a transparent nature to Sullivan's character; perhaps this is Scorsese's genius, casting an actor like Damon to properly fit the bill whether on not Damon truly understands the director's reasoning. There's no question that Damon can act, but he might have to work harder than his immediate peers to develop the ability to leave celebrity at the door when undertaking a role. Despite the stated accolades and hesitations about the cast, The Departed is another of Scorsese's ensemble endeavors that overachieves and definitely satisfies as one of the best examples of filmmaking substance and style today.
As noted at the outset, the pressing question to be answered here is whether this Blu-ray incarnation of The Departed is worth a look, be it first, second, or any iteration thereafter. The answer is 'yes,' without question. Mastered in a 1080p / VC-1 encoded transfer framed at 2.35:1, the picture looks highly impressive, often startling so. The source material is appropriately clean and free from imperfections, making the world of The Departed clear, crisp, and multi-dimensional. Details are sharp and satisfying, resisting over-enhancement and avoiding the sorts of compression annoyances that would otherwise afflict the various settings on display here. Thankfully, the lengthy amount of time spent in the police offices, with their pervasive horizontal lines of metal blinds all around, never succumb to shimmer or shift. Interiors are properly diffused and, therefore, are a bit soft while exterior scenes pop with color and detail. Dark scenes are sharp and gritty and never introduce unwanted graininess. Colors are deep and stable throughout. In all, this is a higher-tier high-definition rendering, through and through.
On the audio side, the resident PCM 5.1 Uncompressed track is clear and well defined, enabling actual discrete channel decoding for the first time in the Blu-ray format (other titles have since employed this lossless format). The greatest benefit of this track goes to the musical cues throughout the feature, which envelop you fully whenever they occur. Unfortunately, you won't feel much depth to the action on screen since it doesn't take advantage of the rear channel capabilities. The picture's soundtrack is largely front anchored and, to that end, a bit disappointing to those eager to be absorbed into the experience. Nevertheless, the front channels do get a rigorous workout with directional information swaying side to side to keep pace with the on screen action. The dialog is always clearly represented.
As far as extras, here's where you may want to shy away from this Blu-ray edition (and possibly the other high-def treatment, the HD-DVD release). Given the storage capacity of the BD media, this edition fails to deliver all of the bonus material found in the two-disc Standard Definition edition. This isn't a fatal flaw since the missing item is the 85-minute documentary, Scorsese on Scorsese. It's a good documentary made prior to the director's work on The Departed and, because of this, its absence doesn't detract significantly. What you will find here is the remainder of the two-disc bonus material, beginning with Stranger Than Fiction: The True Story of Whitey Bulger, Southie, and the Departed, a 22-minute look at Bulger's real-world crime reign over Boston, with commentary and input from Screenwriter William Monahan plus Scorsese, DiCaprio, Damon, and Wahlberg. Next is Crossing Criminal Cultures, a 24-minute look into Scorsese's gangster genre oeuvre. More pertinent to the feature film is the collection of nine deleted scenes, good material that includes introductions by Scorsese. Last up is the film's original theatrical trailer. Pardoning the exclusion of the Scorsese documentary, it's a comparable alternative to the SD version yet sporting a much-improved image and audio mix as noted.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only point of speculative doubt now is whether the film's awards will prompt yet another release, perhaps one with more feature-relevant material that could warrant a re-purchase. You can wait for that, or you can enjoy the high-definition here and now.
The Departed is Oscar-worthy material and provides a solid platform for its young stars to establish a legitimate acting career. In a time when so much drivel slops out of Hollywood's backend, this one comes as a reminder that good work should still be done and will be duly acknowledged when it arises.
This court sees no reason to challenge the Academy's recent ruling. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Additional Scenes With Introductions by Martin Scorsese
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