Starring: Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga
Reviewed by Clement von Franckenstein
Rating (a 1 – 6 scale): 5
Let me begin by saying that this is intentionally (according to producer Graham King) a very box-office orientated crime thriller that will please Scorsese aficionados of all ages. The master who gave us Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino is back on his home turf, and the result, brilliantly edited by the great Thelma Schoonmaker, is riveting cinema.
It is also the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio finally comes of age as an actor. He had some great scenes in The Aviator but it was an uneven performance and he still had the appearance of a callow youth. Here he brilliantly sustains a tough, totally believable, street-wise, multi-faceted character and more than holds his own opposite Nicholson, Wahlberg and Damon. It is by far his best work to date.
The complicated story concerns two "moles” – one honest, the other on the take. Damon’s character, Colin Sullivan, having been financially and morally corrupted by Boston crime boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) as a ten-year-old youth, joins the Boston police and is an informant for Costello, hence keeping his mob one step ahead of the law.
DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, another Boston cop trying to escape his upbringing, who loses his badge due to his bad temper and reckless behavior that seemingly lands him back on the streets as a civilian, where he is recruited by Mr. French (Ray Winstone), Costello’s right hand man, except that he is actually an underground police plant. Hence neither man is what he seems.
There are only two men who know he is under cover, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), and they are the only ones he communicates with. Even Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), the head of the Special Investigations Unit, is unaware of his true identity. Added to the mix is the lovely Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist who specializes in dealing with troubled people on both sides of the law. In a twist of fate, she becomes another unwitting link between Colin, her live-in lover, and Billy, who she starts out seeing professionally and subsequently romantically.
William Monahan, an ex-journalist whose only other big film was the disappointing Kingdom Of Heaven, has written a fantastic, taut, wise-cracking script, giving Mark Wahlberg’s character (Sgt. Dignam) some of the best and funniest come-back lines in recent movie memory. The film is based on Internal Affairs, a 2002 Hong Kong cult thriller.
The story, which I won’t divulge, shows the gradual breakdown of the two men, Billy and Colin, from the strain of almost being "outed,” and Costello, the jaded all powerful crook, who has everything and who starts taking stupid chances for the "kicks” they provide him. Nicholson turns in one of his best recent performances, by turn scary, eccentric and unpredictable. According to DiCaprio, he and Damon never knew from minute to minute during a take what he would throw at them, and this comes through very clearly and makes for compulsive viewing.
Damon also does some of his best work, I just wish that for once he would sport a new haircut! Wahlberg (like DiCapri, a native Bostonian) as mentioned earlier, is excellent and Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin are totally believable as veteran cops. Vera Famiga does a good job as the shrink, playing off both her lovers with aplomb, and Ray Winstone is wonderfully scary as Costello’s psychotic right hand man.
The gritty and sometimes flashy production design by Kristi Zea is first rate, as one would expect in a Scorsese film, and Michael Ballhaus’ brilliant photography combined with Schoonmaker’s incredible editing keeps you glued to the screen.
A wonderful crime thriller that delivers on all levels.