by Ryland Walker Knight
Remember when the first time you saw a Martin Scorsese classic and you nearly bounced in your seat giddy, grinning at the screen? It usually happened within the first five minutes: I love the Ronettes!; this city is grimey and disgusting--a real rain, yeah; pool is sexy; did you see how the camera moved in on him into the freeze frame? That sense of cinematic enthusiasm was sustained for the entire picture through to the climax, racing for that finish line you didn't want to see around the bend. Okay, not all the time. By the end of some you're worn out, ready to quit, checking your wristwatch. Even in GOODFELLAS you can feel the weight of the film by the end, all that nihilism and Catholic guilt like heavy drapery on your shoulders, its fringe dusting the floor. Some will argue similar slants against THE DEPARTED but I was thrilled for the entire running time, eager to watch it again as soon as the last reel slipped through the projector. In fact, I'm going back tonight.
Even if, like me, you haven't seen the original Hong Kong film INFERNAL AFFAIRS, you've seen elements of this movie before in nearly any cops and robbers picture. What you haven't seen is this kind of premise. We all know about the duality of men, cops and robbers in particular, but having them impersonate one another to infiltrate the other's world is as exciting an idea as imaginable. I know, there probably is another film outside these two with a similar plot (maybe another blind spot, SERPICO?) but this one is so slick it's easy to forget the past and dive in with our eyes open.
Matt Damon is the ostensible lead since we follow his Colin Sullivan from the first scene to the last, from wide eyed youth to dead eyed adult. His doppleganger, introduced shortly after Colin's youthful prologue, is Leonardo DiCaprio's anger management case, Billy Costigan. Both actors are groomed to look alike and often Scorsese will shoot them from the same angle in sequential scenes to hammer home this point of duality. It's obvious, yes, but like every stylistic choice in this film, an effective one: the pacing is perfect, the use of musical cues is just right (songs are repeated as character themes instead of scoring), and every line of dialogue from the top notch screenplay pops. There's never a dull moment and plenty of hilarious asides from Alec Baldwin (as dufus blow hard Captain Ellerby) and Mark Wahlberg (the ever-angry Staff Sargeant Dignam) to break up the bleak attitude with some comedic punctuation. The entire all star cast is great, including the old guys who work as father figures as well as Chief Good Guy & Evil Mastermind: Martin Sheen's performance as Captain Queenan is the least showy in the picture and helps balance his opposite, the one from all the ads, the one the bigs hope to lure you the paying customers in with, the big bad powerhouse that is Jack Nicholson. Jack doesn't just chew scenary in this picture, he's stuffing his face letting the juices drip all over his goatee. At this point in his career it's hard for Jack to play it straight, without irnoy, and it works for the most part to some truly funny ends in some sparklingly well acted scenes with DiCaprio. There's moments that remind you of the very unironic brilliance from, say, THE LAST DETAIL, but if you wanted a performance that played by the rules you came to the wrong show.
In a lot of ways it's as much a vanity project as either of Scorsese's two previous films yet this one has the deft screenplay those two lost somewhere in their endless re-writes. William Monohan uses an Irish background to sculpt his reworking of the orginial material and by keeping the Italian element out of the picture (but not the Catholic) Scorsese is set free to focus on perfecting his craft for the film at hand. His indulgences are a roving camera we've not seen as effective since KUNDUN and some of the best editing with Thelma Schoonmaker since their first collaboration, RAGING BULL: it's flashy but economic, like the film as a whole. It's also freed his actors and we finally get to see all those traits Marty's been hyping in Leo since GANGS OF NEW YORK was announced: poignant vulnerability, untapped ferocity, a believable man's swagger. Vera Farmiga has the unlucky role of the only female in the picture but her performance may beat all the men's, elevating her Madolyn above the plot device she may have been in the screenplay.
Above all it's entertainment the picture aims to provide and it certainly succeeds. It may be one of the most entertaining movies I've ever seen. And not just from a thrill-a-minute action standpoint: it's a thrill to see such skill in the end result.
02006: 149 minutes: dir. Martin Scorsese: written by William Monahan, based on a previous screenplay by Alan Mak & Felix Chong