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Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. He’s been writing in Hollywood for some time and after numerous un-produced scripts he finally decided to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he wrote and directed the terrific and terrifically violent western Bone Tomahawk, and then in 2017 he tried his hand at another genre movie, the brutal prison drama, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Now Zahler has hopped to another genre, the more familiar cops-and-robbers crime thriller territory, Dragged Across Concrete. I’ll watch anything that Zahler decides is worthy of his precious time, and I was unprepared for how engaging, exciting, and uncomfortable the movie made me. It’s still early but I already feel confident this is destined as one of my favorite films of 2019.

One bank robbery. Many different sides fighting for the score. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is an ex-con fresh for prison and attached to a crew thanks to a childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a police detective who has been in the same position for nearly 30 years. His wife has MS and his daughter is being assaulted in their urban neighborhood. His partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), is struggling to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend and he sees his partner slipping. Both of them are on suspension after a video of them beating a handcuffed suspect appears online. Then there are the mysterious, masked men (labeled as Grey Gloves and Black Gloves) working alongside Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who hire Henry John and Biscuit to be their getaway drivers. This culminates with a bank robbery that places every character in greater jeopardy as things spin out of control.

What separates Zahler from the pack is simply the magnificent manner he can write scenes, building and building, unlocked intriguing character details, building to startling conclusions or everyday relatability given a new, brash context. It’s a screenwriting edict that every scene should in essence be its own story, having a beginning, middle, and end, a drive, and if possible a reversal to something unexpected, shedding further examination onto a problem, person, or setting. I was greatly enjoying just watching the various characters talk in their understated, hard-boiled, often funny conversations, which don’t feel too self-consciously stylized. It’s just damn good writing. Even when they’re doing bad things, or mistakes that cost them greatly, Zahler has his characters respond like people and not hip, soulless movie cartoons. There’s a reason Concrete is two and a half hours long and that’s because Zahler really lets his scenes breathe at their own pace, which can be too languid if it wasn’t for how exquisitely written they are, particularly with character details. Each scene sheds a startling non-judgmental spotlight on a different character, some criminal, some corrupt, most struggling to keep their heads above water and provide for family, and you feel the narrative expanding, growing, transforming, and providing the needed space to make these people feel real.

Each one of these scenes could be a marvelous short film upon themselves, and sometimes it feels that way with the skipping perspectives. What happens to Jennifer Carpenter’s character, a woman beset with anxiety about returning to work after maternity leave, is its own wonderful movie that provides a glimpse into a life and in only five minutes’ time. Her reluctance to go back to work, her need to be with her child, the simple, heartfelt plea with a child’s sock. It all works in impressive tandem to make this person feel authentic. The same with an exchange between two lifelong friends about a birthday cake and naming dinosaurs, reaching back to ease the current tension. It’s insight rarely afforded to characters in a standard heist movie. The actors are all given these artistic arias to work with, and the extra attention to detail brings a depth of dimension that makes them feel fully realized. Zahler has captured recognizable, complicated human beings and placed them in a pulpy genre movie. This is the sort of A-level elevation of B-movie material that is usually the purview of Quentin Tarantino.

Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. There is a stash of guns in the glove compartment of a getaway van. The first sequence involves the growing tension of characters placing themselves in a vulnerable position by giving up their weapons. Then, as the scene transforms anew, the guns in that compartment become a reminder of an ironic advantage that only one character knows about, and we wait for their retrieval to escalate the danger of the new scenario. That’s fabulous writing with organic developments. There are several characters at cross-purposes with little reason to trust one another, and so we wait for that looming explosion of violence fed by mistrust and greed. Zahler understands this and that’s why many of the scenes in the last hour follow the writing style, slow burns that hang onto the unease and breathing space. There are several long takes aided by long shots that amplify the gnawing tension, as your eyes scan the screen waiting for the boom.

I’ve read more than a few negative reviews for Dragged Across Concrete and I don’t understand their central criticism, namely that Zahler’s movie is “problematic” because of a supposed conservative, bigoted point of view. I think these critics are conflating a featured viewpoint with an endorsement of that viewpoint. Take for instance the brouhaha that erupted over a 2015 episode of the Hulu comedy series Difficult People where a narcissistic, caustic character makes an inappropriate joke featuring super scion Blue Ivy and vilified R. Kelly. In the context of the show, the character is berated for her off-color joke and suffers social consequences. When the episode aired, people went after the show and producer Amy Poehler and entirely missed the point. The character was not put in a positive light for making this joke. She was shamed. Clearly the show did not endorse her behavior but others could not see through their own misplaced outrage. With Dragged Across Concrete, we are presented with middle-aged police officers with a chip on their shoulder who feel justified in engaging in brutality against a suspect of color. That’s not a good thing. Zahler’s film does not endorse their actions or worldview but allows them space to exist, filling in their experiences, so we have a greater understanding of how their perspectives have been honed and hardened over time. It’s the same empathetic lens given to other people, like the opening where Henry comes home and discovers his mother has been forced to turn to prostitution to fend for herself and Henry’s disabled younger brother. I don’t think Zahler endorses the abusive cops any more than the ruthless masked killers.

I’m keeping things light in this review for the reason that I want you, dear reader, to be surprised by the many twists and turns of Dragged Across Concrete. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his instincts and tremendous writing voice. Dragged Across Concrete is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Gotti (2018)

The John Gotti biopic has become somewhat notorious because of its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not that this is the first film to hit that dubious mark. It is bad, though not quite 0% bad. The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome from his lunk-headed, murderous criminals. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. The movie is structured as an ongoing series of interviews between Gotti Sr. (Travolta) and his adult son, with choice flashbacks interspersed. We don’t even get a rise-and-fall sort of formula. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Keanu (2016)

keanu_1sht_main_vert_2764x4096_dom_masterJordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key are gifted comedic performers, as often evidenced from their often-brilliant sketch comedy show Key & Peele. It was only a matter of time before they made the leap to feature-film players, and Keanu is a suitable springboard for the gents that portends to even better future results. Relying upon mistaken identity bluffs, Peele and Key play a pair of relatively straight-laced men who pretend to be violent gangsters in order to retrieve Peele’s stolen kitten. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t feel like an overextended sketch though it does have its narrative detours that dawdle (a celebrity drug deal is padded out with far too few jokes), running jokes that hold on for a beat too long and then some (the George Michael fascination culminates in a drug sequence that does absolutely nothing), and there are missed opportunities that seem obvious (Key using his new gangster friends to intimidate a man making advances on his wife). Will Forte’s hip-hop loving drug dealer feels like a character nobody knew what to do with, including Forte. What doesn’t disappoint is the natural comic chemistry of its leads as well as the movie’s ability to surprise, zigging rather than zagging, and finding small jokes just as satisfying as larger set pieces. I enjoyed when the guys’ insecurity butted against their bravado, like when Peele is trying to deflect credit for helping his new pal to do some very bad things. The onscreen action is somewhere between the wackier world of 21 Jump Street and the grisly, unfunny world of Pineapple Express but at least the filmmakers realize that an action-comedy still needs to present its action through a comic lens. I was laughing consistently throughout though it was mostly at a chuckle level, if I were to be honest. Keanu is a fairly fun comedy that you can’t help but think could have been more refined during its structureless periods, but then another joke appears and it’s hard to get too upset with the final enterprise. Keanu is funny enough but you sense that a better vehicle is on the horizon for these two gifted comedians. Oh and the cat is powerfully adorable.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Gangster Squad (2013)

1912It’s hard to mention the action thriller Gangster Squad without a passing reference to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting in the summer of 2012, the reason for the film’s five-month delay and reshot action sequence. Gone is a shootout at the movies and now we have a confrontation in the streets of Chinatown. I wish they hadn’t stopped there. If given the opportunity, and remember they did have an additional five months, I would have scrapped Gangster Squad almost completely and started fresh.

In 1949, former boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has seized control of Los Angeles organized crime. His influence extends even into a police, which forces Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to go to desperate measures. He asks Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a team of enforcers to fight back. They won’t have badges but they will be pushed to use whatever means necessary to carry out their mission, which means blurring the line between what is considered lawful. O’Mara assembles a super group of former officers and one of them, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) gets into even deeper danger when he starts seeing Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

This movie is like if The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential had an illegitimate child and then abandoned it in a sewer where degenerate hobos raised it. Gangster Squad rips off other gangster movies with liberal abandon that I can’t even begin to list the lifts. I’d be less offended if I felt that the movie had more on its mind than just replicating the tone and look of noir cinema. Actually, it feels more like what they want to replicate is the tone or style of the video game L.A. Noir.

90345_galThe main problem is that Gangster Squad really only has the skeletal outline of a plot. It’s missing any essential character and plot development. Here, I’ll summarize the barebones plot for you: Mickey Cohen is a bad guy. O’Mara forms a team. They have a montage taking out bad guys. Mickey takes out one of them. They have a showdown. That, ladies and gents, is it. There really aren’t any scenes that diverge from those scant descriptions. It felt like only five minutes passed from one of O’Mara’s guys getting killed (and just like The Untouchables, it’s the nerdy one) to them descending on Cohen’s headquarters and duking it out. Why does the film introduce the conflict of Wooters seeing Cohen’s girl if he never finds out? There isn’t even one scene presented to take advantage of this conflict. It just ends up being another half-baked plotline. It feels like the only development we get with Gangster Squad is through montages. What is also apparent is that O’Mara and his team really don’t have anything resembling the faintest notion of a plan. We watch them take out some bad guys via fights and shootouts but there’s no higher plotting to it. You get a sense that these former cops are just playing it by ear, looking for a fight every night. It’s hard to imagine that these people, even with their law enforcement and war experience, could be effective in the long term. Without any formative organization or greater planning, these guys just seem like dull bruisers bouncing from fight to fight with no sense of direction.

Then there’s the paucity of character work, relying solely on genre archetypes to do its work for the movie. O’Mara is the determined family man but his team can best be described by one-word classifications: The Black Guy (Anthony Mackie), The Nerdy Guy (Giovanni Ribisi), The Mexican Guy (Michael Pena), The Young Guy (Gosling), The Old Guy (Robert Patrick). That’s about it, though I suppose they do have different weapon preferences meant to supply all that missing characterization. Oh look, Officer Harris (Mackie) brings a knife to gunfights. That’s pretty much the beginning and end of his character. Wooters is so lackadaisical he feels like he’s on drugs, and Gosling’s soft-spoken, mealy-mouthed line delivery only adds to the effect. It feels like Gosling, in a stretch to find something interesting out of the mundane, said to himself, “I wonder if I could give a whole performance where I only speak under a certain vocal register.” Then there’s the woefully miscast Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) as the femme fatale/mol to Mickey. I love Stone as an actress, but man-eater she is not and sultry seductress doesn’t fit her well either. Perhaps with the aid of a sharper script and a greater depth of character she could rise to the challenge. At no point does Gangster Squad really even attempt to make these people multi-dimensional.  They never reflect on the moral turpitude of their own vigilante justice or the ramifications of their actions. There’s no room for ambiguity here.

90346_galFinally, we must speak of Mr. Sean Penn (Milk). The man’s actorly gumbo goes into campy overdrive. In these rare circumstances, you aren’t watching Sean Penn Esteemed Actor so much as Sean Penn Human Vortex of Overacting. Normally I would criticize Penn for going over the top but over the course of 110 minutes, he single-handedly becomes the only entertaining thing in the movie. He’s chewing scenery up a storm, yes, but at least he’s channeling the pulpy silliness of the whole movie. I came to enjoy his antics and outbursts and thus became more empathetic of Mickey Cohen and his efforts than I did with O’Mara. Such is the danger screenwriters run when they spend more time crafting an interesting villain than a hero.

Gangster Squad is what happens when a movie is sold on title and genre elements. To be fair, it’s a bang-up title. The plot is half-baked at best, really only serving as a thin outline of a gangster movie, but instead of adding complexity and intrigue and characterization, they just ran with it. The actors are either camping it up or out of their element, the action and shootouts are pretty mundane, and the story is just uninvolving, even for fans of film noir like myself. It’s a good-looking film from a technical standpoint, but that’s as far as I’ll go in my recommendation (it could be an odd pairing with Milk considering the two shared actors). It feels like it just wants the setting elements of film noir, the atmosphere, and then figures just having good guys and bad guys shoot it out will suffice. That glossy, high-sheen period look just seems like a cool façade, and a cool façade seems like the only ambition of Gangster Squad. I can’t really recall any signature action sequence, snappy quote, plot development, or peculiarity worthy of remembering. It may be one of the most forgettable gangster movies Hollywood has produced.

Nate’s Grade: C

Public Enemies (2009)

Considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s hard not to describe Public Enemies as anything but a letdown. This Depression-era gangster film is heavy on period details and very tight-fisted when it comes to characterization. You’d think given 140 minutes and the natural charisma of Johnny Depp that an audience would come to some kind of understanding with notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Nope. The characters remain perfunctory the entire time, pushed into conflicts by a brisk pace that manages to squeeze in three bank robberies, two prison breaks, and many police shootouts. Because the movie barely takes time to breathe, the love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, a dead ringer for pop singer Katy Perry) is never credible, the tension never feels palpable, and director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) seems overly smitten with his distracting high def digital photography. You never really feel any sense of danger or interest. The characters on screen feel like strangers even after 140 minutes. Depp makes the movie more tolerable than it would be without his presence. Mann, one of three credited screenwriters, seems to assume the audience is well versed in Dillinger history and so he skips over plenty of fertile territory. Public Enemies certainly hums with plenty of polish but it comes across as mostly mundane due to such flimsy character work. It’s a collection of good scenes that fail to make up a satisfying whole.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Gomorrah (2008)

In the Bible, God promised not to obliterate the town of Gomorrah if Abraham could find a righteous man. That didn’t work out so well. This stirring Italian crime drama explores the long-reach of the Camorra crime syndicate stationed in Naples. The oldest Italian criminal organization is larger than the mafia, and the film’s four overlapping narrative threads showcase how the Camorra has a grip on every industry. The usual criminal enterprises are there, from drug trafficking to hired murders, but the organization is also deeply involved in the fashion industry as well as toxic dumping; in a perfect metaphor for the entire film, the Camorra is profiting by burying toxic death just below the surface. The objective docu-drama style lends disturbing reality to the ordeal, though the screenwriting too often feels like a pumped-up “true crime” novel – there’s far more emphasis on the minute details than the people. The movie makes empathy nearly impossible, not that this is necessarily a stinging detriment. The movie steers away from the excitement of violence and instead the death is merciless and swift and unexpected. Gomorrah strips away all the romantic notions involved with the gangster lifestyle; the two teenage gangster wannabes who quote Tony Montana are in for a rude awakening by the established toughs. The movie can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating and told with factual backing that makes it spooky. It may not be as powerful or intense as 2002’s City of God but this is certainly one movie that can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Street Kings (2008)

This is a wildly overwrought and sleazy drama is hoping to come across as edgy but everything is so overdone. It fulfills all the requisite elements of the modern crime picture; double crosses, forlorn anti-heroes, bloody violence, but Street Kings misses the mark big time when it comes to any nuance. Every beat of this murky, convoluted dirty cops mystery is plain and obvious. If you cannot guess within minutes who the eventual culprits will be then you haven’t seen enough movies. Every character is a cliché of a cliché, every unrestrained actor is constantly speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, and the dialogue is some of the worst I’ve heard all year. Keanu Reeves is a listless leading man who is blank and lifeless, unable to wrestle the dark and complicated emotions needed for a “cop on the edge” role. I can practically feel Forest Whitaker’s spittle every time he speaks. Street Kings feels like a route retread of rogue cop pictures, which are director David Ayer’s specialty. It wants to shine a light on the seedy underbelly of the law but it can’t stop from feeling like a lobotomized version of L.A. Confidential (Note to Ayer: Jay Mohr + mustache = an arrangement that benefits neither party).

Nate’s Grade: D

Smokin’ Aces (2007)

Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Narc) wants to impress an audience so bad with his muscular and macho gangster flick, but his Smokin’ Aces is vapid, nihilistic, and opines not to simply be a Tarantino rip-off, but a rip-off of a Tarantino rip-off. The premise seems ripe enough as we follow a rogue’s gallery of hitmen and killers trying to be the first to knock off a mob snitch/Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven) for a million dollar bounty. The colorful characters are introduced and some are quickly and unexpectedly taken out, but Carnahan never fully knows what to do with his bushel of baddies after he establishes their character quirks. The killers don’t really interact that much with one another and some of them hardly have any screen time at all; perhaps less would have been more in this jumbled stew. Carnahan throws out a few nifty visual tricks but it’s all superfluous and empty. Smokin’ Aces moves quickly, doesn’t make much sense in the beginning and end, and little to any of the characters have satisfying conclusions. So much of the writing feels like lame macho posturing without anything new or interesting to add to an overstuffed shoot-em-up. There are cops, robbers, plenty of gunfire, lesbians, and all sorts of convoluted twists, but it never holds together. Carnahan throws a lot of different elements together but they never extend beyond the elemental stage, so every storyline and character feels like an introduction that?s never capped off. The man has no idea what to do with what he’s started, and a karate kid on Ritalin is all the proof I need. Guy Ritchie did this territory far better service with the marvelously entertaining 2001 film Snatch. Rent that instead and save yourself the headache.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

Probably too clever by half, this Tarantino knockoff is gloriously twisty and far more twisted than you may have thought from the surface. It’s a puzzle piece that winds up being vastly entertaining. Josh Hartnett does the best work of his career in an effervescent comedic performance, playing Slevin, a nobody mistaken for a somebody who owes different mobsters large sums of money. There are a lot of balls to keep juggling, but Lucky Number Slevin finds a way to keep the headstrong momentum constantly going. The neo-noir art direction is fabulous and eye-catching. Things get really dark in the last act, perhaps too dark for some, but for me, this was a crime caper that left me captivated by clever storytelling and flashy camerawork. Definitely for fans of the noir genre and for those with hard stomachs for violence.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Departed (2006)

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” growls Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in the opening seconds of The Departed. “I want my environment to be a product of me.” Without question, the filmmaker that has shaped the environment of movies more than any other in the last 30 years is Martin Scorsese. No one does the cops-and-robbers territory better than Scorsese, and it’s great to have him back on familiar turf. It’s not that Gangs of New York and The Aviator were lacking in directorial skill, it’s just that they felt so labored and reeking of classy awards envy. With The Departed, it all feels so artistically effortless, like Scorsese settled in a zone of brilliant filmmaking. I just hope Marty bangs out more of these excellent gangster flicks before trying again to woo Oscar. In fact, his return to his violent stomping grounds might finally be his long-overdue ticket to the winner’s circle.

The premise is appealingly simple. The Boston State Police Department is desperate to nail local crime lord Costello. They pluck a young recruit, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has a shady family history of small-time crooks. He agrees to infiltrate Costello’s mob and report back to the Boston PD. To make is situation credible, Costigan is expelled from the force and sent to prison to earn a rep. Only two other people know Cosigan’s real identity, the police chief (Martin Sheen) and the head of undercover work (Mark Wahlberg). On the other side of the law, Costello has a mole all his own working inside the Boston State police force. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has quickly risen through the ranks and has a prime position working with the state?s FBI crack force. He’s also an acolyte of Costello’s ever since he was a young Southie kid seeing the draw of power. Now full grown, Sullivan tips Costello and tries to redirect the ongoing investigation to bring the man to justice.

The real sparks come when both moles try to discover the identity of the other, without compromising their own precarious identities.

The Departed is a bruising, bristling return to form for Martin Scorsese and his most entertaining film since his last Great Movie, 1990’s gangster-rific Goodfellas. This is a movie that crams multiple characters, storylines, and histories into one tight, focused setting, but then the flick glides smoothly on electric storytelling and intense performances. The movie’s twists and turns are, at times, of a knockout variety, and there’s a stretch of late surprises that each feels like a shot to the gut. I was possibly winded from gasping so hard. This is a film so fantastically alive with feeling and vigor that you cannot help but get ensnared. It sets up all the players and back-story before we even get the opening titles set to the blaring wails of the Dropkick Murphies. The thrills are real because we feel the danger, and the onslaught of brutal violence is another rhythmic piece in Scorsese’s masterful conduction. Adding to the feeling is the sure-handed, quick-fire editing of longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker and the ominous cinematography of Michael Ballhaus. Even though this film is based on a 2002 Hong Kong film, Scorsese has firmly made The Departed a movie all its own in spirit and personality. No one so easily brings us into the sordid lives of criminals better than this man, who, when in that creative zone of his, brings such palpable energy to his melding of image, song, and consequence, that the results are simply intoxicating. The Departed reminds you why Scorsese is still our greatest living director, no matter what Oscar thinks.

What elevates The Departed from the clutter of other macho men-with-guns crime capers is its studious attention to character. This is a film that works beyond a concept. The movie’s central moral theme is the price of identity. Frank opens the film asking what does it matter who’s holding the gun to your head, cop or crook. Costigan is tormented from wearing too many faces. He’s having trouble justifying his deeds and actions and is scared he may lose his own soul at the price of his lost identity. Sullivan, on the other hand, has gladly sold his own soul for a pittance. He’s a class conscience yuppie that craves power and will cut any throat if it gets him ahead. The movie steamrolls ahead with intrigue but it’s our connections to these characters that elevate the life-and-death stakes. You have a real emotional investment in this story, therefore when things get murky you really feel the danger. My heart was racing with excitement and dread. There may still be impressions from where I was squeezing the movie chair.

Complimenting these complex characters are brilliant performances. DiCaprio may have been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his second Scorsese collaboration, The Aviator, but he turns in his strongest work here. DiCaprio expertly bares a gnawing moral conflict with equal parts desperation and the hunger to do good. He’s trying to finally do right and step out of his family’s criminal past, and DiCaprio brings sharp intensity to this plight. You really feel every stomach churn this guy goes through to do what he does and stay alive. I knocked the boy for being too boyish a gangster in Gangs of New York, and let me say I take back my words. On the flip side, Damon utilizes his angelic, choirboy good looks and masterfully downplays his character’s pragmatic villainy. The character has to hide so much from the outside world, be it the police, his true bosses, his girlfriend, and even himself. Damon goes about his deceitful business with slickly sick ease, tapping a killer’s instinct for self-preservation. You may shudder from how methodically cold and manipulative he comes across. He’s a mesmerizing rat bastard of a human being and yet Damon presents an almost seductive portrait of evil.

Nicholson is equally good though at times can be a distraction to the storytelling. There are a handful of moments where Nicholson seems to go too far off the page, indulging his crazier tendencies. Costello is supposed to be a scary, unpredictable, potentially unhinged man, and Scorsese has plenty of moments that bring home this point. It just feels inappropriate then for Nicholson to, in a few small moments, transform into a goofy cartoon. With that said, it’s great to see Nicholson cracking some heads for Scorsese. He has devilish fun and is insanely watchable while definitely going for broke. After some nice guy roles it’s nice to have back an unrestrained Nicholson to play the film’s abyss of evil.

The collected supporting players all leave some mark. Baldwin and Wahlerg are perfectly profane hardass characters that you warm up to. Sheen, free from the Oval Office, displays nice touches of weariness and, in one moment, practically breaks my heart with his brave resignation. Breaking up this boy’s club is Vera Farmiga (Running Scared) as a somewhat contrived plot point to connect Costigan and Sullivan as the police shrink to one and the girlfriend to the other. There’s a perceived sadness to her willowy eyes and slender face that she plays to great effect. She?s a captivating new face and gives an extra ladling of emotion to the tale.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen the movie and I still can’t get it out of my head. There are only a handful of flaws that separates The Departed from Scorsese’s rich pantheon of mythically Great Movies. This is a complex, gritty, amazing crime thriller stuffed to the gills with entertainment. Making the bloody body count resonate are the incredibly intense performances, particularly Damon and DiCaprio. This is a gripping gangster thriller pumping with the blood of a sterling character piece. The unexpected twists and turns will shake you, and the movie goes well beyond a snappy premise. The Departed is a moviegoing experience that will thrill you, stir you, sadden you, exhilarate you, and firmly plant itself in your memory banks. Welcome back Marty.

Nate’s Grade: A

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