The Departed

Jack Nicholson in The Departed



Martin Scorsese’s remake of the brilliant 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs adds 50 minutes of flab to what was a lean, taut thriller. The plot is the same – cop bosses Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg send in undercover man Leo DiCaprio to bust a gang. Unbeknown to the boys at the precinct, gang boss Jack Nicholson is one step ahead of them and has been grooming a placeman of his own (Matt Damon) for years, and he’s now deep deep inside their gangbusting team. The drama springs from the “Who is going to get whacked first?” premise as each side works out after a while that there’s a mole on the team and then tries to work out who it is.

Scorsese gets busy with the digressions from the start, with a Goodfellas opening (thanks to William Monahan’s script) intoned by Nicholson – “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be product of me. Years ago we had the church…” And through the rest of the film Scorsese keeps adding self-consciously “Marty” touches – the use of the Stones and John Lennon on the soundtrack, the acres of wiseguy smalltalk that used to be fun until everyone started doing it, the “big man” acting style. If Scorsese is puzzlingly behaving as if Tarantino hasn’t happened, the basic cat-and-mouse of Damon and DiCaprio remains nailbiting, and the fact that the two stars are dressed and coiffed similarly is clearly also saying something about 21st century law enforcement (the usual thing, but hey). And Alec Baldwin, as the reptilian alpha male, toilet-mouthed and very violent cop, also reminds us what presence and acting chops are all about.

As for Jack Nicholson, the extra length of this film vis a vis the original looks to be down to the fact that it’s been rewritten around him, possibly to encourage him to sign up. Nicholson and Scorsese have never worked together before, and the suspicion is that Scorsese sees The Departed partly as a way of bagging another 70s legend. But though Nicholson’s presence can be justified in so many ways – his Frank Costello is based on real-life Boston crime boss “Whitey” Bulger, his character allows Scorsese to get religion in, and widen the film out into a discussion about morality and guilt, and so on – the story isn’t about him, or shouldn’t be. And as if to show he knows everything has been bent too far out of shape to accommodate him, Nicholson delivers a finger-flick performance. Scorsese-philes and Nicholson groupies will love all the masturbatory touches. The rest of us will console ourselves with the Hong Kong original, which actually concentrates on the show rather than the sideshow, and with the fact that for all its flaws this is Scorsese’s best film since Casino, so maybe the man is on the comeback trail.


The Departed – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006



The Aviator

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner in The Aviator

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

19 January

Howard Hughes sets transcontinental air record, 1937

On this day in 1937 Howard Hughes set a new world record for flying across the continent of America. Flying a H-Racer with extra long wings, he made the journey from Los Angeles to Newark in 7 hours 28 minutes and 25 seconds. The plane had been commissioned by Hughes himself and was innovative in many respects, not least its insistence on all rivets and joints being set flush, which greatly increased its slipperiness through the air.

The record was one of many accolades that this man born into wealth would accrue. His father had made his money by designing a bit for oil drilling, and when Hughes inherited his money aged 19, he immediately set about doing extraordinary things with it.

This included becoming a Hollywood producer, flying and designing planes, buying and running the TWA airline, designing a bra for Jane Russell (which she never wore), designing a hospital bed for himself after a plane crash (which he never used), designing and building the world’s largest plane built from wood, the H-4 Hercules aka the Spruce Goose (which flew only once) and founding the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, now the second largest medical research foundation in the world.

The Aviator (2004, dir: Martin Scorsese)

Though he hasn’t made a really great film since Casino, with The Aviator Martin Scorsese returns to something like classic form. Yes, this means I’m down on Gangs of New York – but then most people are these days, now that the dust has settled.

The aviator in question is Howard Hughes, with Leonardo DiCaprio taking the role of the magnate/producer/oddball and proving again that Scorsese’s faith in him is well founded.

It’s a riches to something like rags story, the film following Howard from his first arrival in Hollywood as a young, handsome, stupendously rich man to the beginning of his long decline sat in the dark, in his own filth, suspicious of everyone around him.

On the way we’ve been treated to one of those love letters to old Hollywood that Scorsese loves writing – with Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale making a particularly fine Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, and Gwen Stefani doing OK as Jean Harlow, as does Jude Law as Errol Flynn (these are all pretty tough calls).

We’ve seen something of Hughes’s airplane obsession – the designing and flying of the Spruce Goose (it was made mostly of birch, in fact), the takeover of TWA, the round-the-world flight and the spectacular crash of his XF-11 into a Beverly Hills neighbourhood which ensured Hughes was in pain for the rest of his life.

We’ve also, in one of the film’s most gripping sequences, seen something of the keen brain that probably would have made Hughes rich if he hadn’t inherited wealth, as he is grilled at a Congressional hearing and turns the tables on the Senator (demonically played by Alan Alda) who is convinced Hughes’s corporation is milking money from the government and profiteering from the Second World War.

Ultimately this is a sad story, though Scorsese loads it with Hollywood glam as John Logan’s script touches down nimbly at key points from the 1920s to the 1940s. Hughes would live until 1976 and spent the last years of his life as the world’s most famous recluse. But there’s no need to go from A to Z when A to B tells us what we need to know. B, in Hughes’s case, often standing for “breasts”. Enter Jane Russell’s cleavage.

Why Watch?

  • A glossy, spectacular biopic about a fascinating character
  • The stunt casting of famous people as other famous people
  • Cinematography by Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds, World War Z)
  • Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing

    The Aviator – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014