The Departed Could Have Been A Reunion For Martin Scorsese And Robert De Niro

Jack Nicholson as a mob boss? I was all for it going into "The Departed," and he didn't disappoint. Not at first, anyway. The movie starts with a classic Martin Scorsese needle drop as the Stones belt out "Gimme Shelter" and Frank Costello (Nicholson) dispenses his philosophy on life and power on the streets of Boston. True to the character's underworld nature, the director keeps the screen legend in the shadows during the opening montage as he shakes down local businesses for protection money, hits on young women, and casually shoots victims in the back of the head.

Once we actually get a proper look at Costello, the sinister restraint of the introduction is lost as Nicholson's performance becomes increasingly cartoonish. Then comes the moment that totally broke the movie for me: the mobster starts waving a strap-on dildo around during a meeting with an informant. Prior to that, I could handle him playing with a severed hand over his lunch plate, but this improvised gag is one of the most bizarre moments in Scorsese's entire filmography. It's like Costello has wandered in from a Guy Ritchie crime caper. It's certainly not the nuanced Jack Nicholson of his '70s heyday; this is Jack at his most oversized and self-indulgent, and the character loses all sense of menace the more cartoonish he becomes.

Casting Nicholson in the part was an interesting choice, but one that almost capsizes the movie altogether. We don't normally get performances this zany in a Scorsese movie and it's hard not to wonder what control someone like, say, Robert De Niro would have brought to the role instead. As it happens, the director's great muse was originally offered a part in the film, albeit one you might not expect.

Robert De Niro almost took a role in The Departed

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have one of the most successful working relationships in American cinema, with the actor creating unforgettable characters in some of the director's greatest films (and also "New York, New York"). From his swaggering entrance in "Mean Streets" to his cool and calculated performance in "Casino," they made eight feature films together before Leonardo DiCaprio took over as the director's new muse.

DiCaprio's talent was evident from the very beginning but he was a little out of his depth initially, looking uncomfortable in "Gangs of New York" and unconvincing in "The Aviator." "The Departed" was the film where he really hit his stride as Scorsese's go-to leading man, aging well into the role for the director and giving one of his best performances in "The Wolf of Wall Street."

In many ways, "The Departed" feels like the passing-of-the-torch movie between De Niro and DiCaprio that never happened. They formed a powerful dynamic while the latter was in his teens in "This Boy's Life," and it would have been fascinating to see how he measured up to De Niro as an adult.

It nearly happened, though, and must go down as one of cinema's many tantalizing near-misses. De Niro was originally offered the chance to play Captain Queenan (via Vanity Fair), but unfortunately turned it down because he was due to direct the mediocre spy drama "The Good Shepherd." Martin Sheen took the role instead.

Scorsese and De Niro teamed up again for "The Irishman," and we'll finally get that meeting between the director's two muses when "Killers of the Flower Moon" drops next year. Here's hoping it is worth the wait.

So what happens in The Departed again?

In the film's terrific opening scene, we see Irish mobster Frank Costello wooing a young lad from the neighborhood, Colin Sullivan, with gifts and wisdom. Sullivan (played as an adult by Matt Damon) grows up to become a driven young recruit in the Massachusetts State Police, although he is actually a mole for his mentor, Costello. Meanwhile, another raw recruit, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is picked out by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to go deep undercover in his old neighborhood to infiltrate Costello's gang. Who will root out the other first?

"The Departed" is a robust remake of Hong Kong classic "Infernal Affairs," with Scorsese clearly enjoying himself with the trading places hokum of the premise. Due to the extreme danger of Costigan's role, his storyline is far more gripping, and DiCaprio is excellent in the role. Costigan is a troubled guy in the first place, but the pressures of undercover work all play out on DiCaprio's haunted face. Damon is also very good, but we never really get a glimpse of his true feelings. As the villain of the piece, he's something of a blank, a shrewd manipulator who stops at nothing to cover his tracks.

This was the film that won Scorsese a Best Director Oscar, but was it a worthy win? He directs with plenty of verve, but he was clearly unable or unwilling to rein in Nicholson's ludicrous performance, and he signs off with a really on-the-nose visual metaphor in the final shot that he never would have entertained in his really top-tier films. "The Departed" is a very entertaining movie, but the award was very much a pat on the back for his previous work.