There is something called the "one for them, one for me" approach shared by several of Hollywood's top directors -- the gambit by which an A-list filmmaker remains viable in the marketplace by making one "art house" flick to indulge their own artistic whims (and often win awards), followed by a more commercial blockbuster to keep their agents and accountants happy. The examples range from Steven Spielberg ('Schindler's List' begat 'The Lost World') to Clint Eastwood ('Flags of Our Fathers' and 'Letters from Iwo Jima' in the same year) to Stanley Kubrick ('Barry Lyndon' flops, bring on 'The Shining'). Thankfully, some of the best directors simply cop to it -- just ask Steven Soderbergh, and everyone's favorite perennial Oscar loser, Martin Scorsese.
'The Departed' was supposed to be one of the mob movie auteur's "One for them" flicks. Which is fine enough -- for every 'Cape Fear' or 'Bringing Out the Dead,' he's given us a 'GoodFellas' or a 'Casino.' And following the commercially successful if somewhat stillborn 'The Aviator,' 'The Departed' was intended as nothing more than a lean, mean, crowd-pleasing mob movie, the kind Scorsese can direct in his sleep. Still, even "mainstream" Scorsese is better than 90 percent of the crap made by other filmmakers, and 'The Departed' turned out be the best of both worlds. Far and away Scorsese's biggest box office hit, it also earned excellent critical notices (currently a sterling 93 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and, as of this writing, dear old Marty seems at last poised to take home that Best Director statuette at this year's Oscar ceremony.
The film's story, a somewhat faithful remake of the Chinese hit 'Infernal Affairs,' is certainly pulp fiction. It's South Boston, and the state police force is waging war on Irish-American organized crime. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the young, idealistic undercover cop Billy Costigan, who has been assigned to infiltrate a syndicate run by gangland chief Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). But in only one of the film's many parallels, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a hardened young criminal, has simultaneously infiltrated the police department as an informer for the same syndicate. Both will rise to power and become consumed by their double life, gathering information about the plans and counter-plans of their competing operations. It all comes cascading down fantastically when both the mob and the police realize that there is a mole in their midst -- but is it Billy, or Colin? Each are now both in danger of being exposed, and must race to uncover the identity of the other in order to save themselves -- regardless of now many friends and comrades they have to take down in the process.
The core theme of 'The Departed' will be familiar to even those with only a passing awareness of Scorsese's past work. "When I was your age, they would say we could become cops or criminals," Costello pontificates at one point. "But what I'm saying to you is this: when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" It is a world view that Scorsese has been exploring ever since 'Mean Streets,' but what's fresh for the director about 'The Departed' is that the moral quagmires are expressed through the conventions of a genre piece. Yet he does not sacrifice his artistry. The "who's the mole?" concept, despite the film's rather long 154-minute runtime, is so foolproof that even in lesser hands 'The Departed' would have a gangbusters genre piece. But lending credence to all the "Scorsese is brilliant!" plaudits is that his level of craftsmanship has risen so high that he is able to bring a tremendous level of visual and thematic complexity to the material, without sacrificing its mainstream appeal. Like the best of Spielberg, Soderbergh and Orson Welles, he has elevated a commercial film to the level of art, instead of dumbing down art for the sake of commerce.
Even if Scorsese wasn't firing on all cylinders, 'The Departed' might have coasted by just on its star wattage alone. DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, Nicholson -- it's a dream cast. And a boys club, to be sure, much to the exclusion of everyone else on the screen (even a fine actress like 'Down to the Bone's Vera Farmiga fails to register, although to be fair, hers is an utterly thankless role). DiCaprio delivers what I thought was his greatest work since 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?', while Wahlberg easily tops any performance he's ever given -- even Dirk Diggler in 'Boogie Nights.' For me, the only weak link is actually Nicholson. Though he has the required gravitas for such a world-weary character, he resorts to his usual "Just Jack" shtick. His hammy Boston accent also goes in and out as the wind blows. Still, Nicholson in full-tilt scenery-chewing mode is always a hoot, especially in one now-infamous scene involving a couple of prostitutes.
If 'The Departed' ultimately doesn't measure up to the absolute best works in the Scorsese canon, it may stem back to the fact that the film, however expertly mounted, is still a commercial detour for the director. As with 'Cape Fear,' it is an exceptional genre piece -- one that succeeds so well simply because Scorsese is incapable of making a soulless movie. In other words, it may just be art by accident. But when the results are this entertaining, who cares?
To say that 'The Departed' comes to HD DVD with high expectations is an understatement. In fact, judging by the emails we've received, it may even be the most highly-anticipated next-gen release ever. Fans are demanding nothing less than a top-tier, must-own demo disc -- and I certainly wouldn't want to be Warner if this disc hadn't delivered. Thankfully, there is no reason to worry; 'The Departed' easily ranks among best transfers I've seen on either format, hands down.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, both the HD DVD and Blu-ray versions feature identical 1080p/VC-1 encodes. As you would expect for a brand-new release, the source is in pristine shape. The image is always rock solid, with a bit of post-processing applied, but still retaining the natural look of film. There is a thin veneer of grain that retains the intended gritty look of Martin Scorsese's vision. Detail is impressive, with excellent depth throughout and shadow delineation superior. Even the darkest scenes reveal fine texture in the backgrounds, and close-ups can be tremendous.
A quick compare with the standard-def version included on this HD DVD/DVD combo also reveals a noticeable and appreciable upgrade. Particularly noteworthy is color reproduction. I must admit that the standard-def version boasts some of the cleanest and most vivid hues I've seen on DVD. However, the high-def versions are even better, with vivid primaries (particularly the wonderful use of deep reds) that are clear reminders of how superior HD really can be. Also a plus is the lack of any edge enhancement, which gives the transfer a very smooth but not artificial look. About the only drawback is some fluctuating sharpness, with the odd shot here or there looking a bit soft. Still, that's a minor complaint. 'The Departed' absolutely lived up to my high hopes.
'The Departed' on HD DVD includes a Dolby TrueHD lossless 5.1 surround track, which is nothing unusual (though still not commonplace) for a top tier Warner HD DVD release. However, it is an audio format that the studio has yet to support on rival Blu-ray. To compensate, Warner is making an attempt at parity for both next-gen platforms, offering an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track on the Blu version. Which makes for a very exciting opportunity -- 'The Departed' is our first reviewed title to allow for a direct, head-to-head comparison between the two high-resolution audio formats.
But first, the "bad" news. In all honesty, 'The Departed' is not as involving a soundtrack as I expected. The film's sound design is surprisingly front-heavy. I even dropped in the DVD side of this HD DVD/DVD combo version, and sure enough, regardless of format, there just isn't much surround action going on. Aside from a few key sequences, most of the whiz-bang effects are restrained. However, to be fair, when the rears do kick in, the accuracy of directional sounds is superb, and other elements of the mix, particularly Howard Shore's score, can really fill up the full 360-degree soundfield. I also was impressed with how pronounced yet organic low bass sounded. The film is often punctuated by low tones, which have a powerful tightness rare even in the best modern surround tracks. Dialogue reproduction is also first-rate, with every word crystal clear.
Now, how do the PCM and TrueHD tracks compare? Given this historic opportunity, I decided to conduct a little experiment. I invited a friend over, who is a big movie and music buff, but not particularly technical. He knows good audio when he hears it, yet doesn't know a PCM from an RPM from R.E.M. In other words, he's Joe Six-Pack with a great ear. Anyway, together we conducted a "blind" audio test -- we select ten short sequences from the film, and listened to a compare of each. We took turns firing up each scene, and selecting which one sounded better, with no knowledge of which sample was the Blu-ray and which the HD DVD.
After writing down our answers on little scraps of paper (note that we didn't throw them into a hat -- we aren't that dorky), the results were interesting. Out of the twenty comparisons (ten for him, ten for me), we could only detect differences on four scenes total. But of those four, we both always preferred the PCM track, if only a smidgeon. For example, there is a scene in involving an attempted trade bust between the Costello character and a Chinese gang. There is a sound of a gun firing that we went back over a few times, and as silly as it sounds, the force and impact of the sounds was a shade more realistic in PCM. Also a beneficiary of the uncompressed mix is the music, as this is a film brimming with rock songs. The first scene we picked featured the Rolling Stone's "Gimme Shelter," and again the PCM track boasted a slightly more spacious feel to the music in all channels -- as if the very highest end of the frequency range was more palpable.
Granted, these are very slight differences and subjective preferences. Had we not blindfolded each other (figuratively speaking, of course) and been flipping back and forth between discs like one of those old Coke-Pepsi commercials, such deviations likely would have been imperceptible. It is also certain that the average listener wouldn't be able to tell the difference without possessing the ears of a dog. Still, in this case I give a slight edge to the PCM track, though a comparison between a single title hardly qualifies as the final word. If nothing else, it made me realize that if all the studios dumped this dueling audio format business and went all-PCM, I can't say I would be likely to complain...
Great video and audio aside, 'The Departed' does feel a bit like a rushed release in terms of extras. Quite frankly, I'm not a fan of today's super-short theatrical-to-video windows. Not only does it cut into a film's theatrical run, but production times for DVD are now so short that there is little time, if any, to pull together a decent supplemental package before a disc's street date. So don't expect any monumental extras on 'The Departed,' at least until the inevitable double dip. In the meantime, however, we do get is a decent enough package.
With no audio commentary from Martin Scorsese, it is up to two featurettes to flesh out the making-of material. Unfortunately, neither is really about the movie per se, but rather its subject matter and genre roots. "Stranger Than fiction: The True Story of Whitey Bulger, Southie and 'The Departed'" runs 22 minutes. Screenwriter William Monahan based much of his script not only on the original Chinese film 'Infernal Affairs' but also on the real-life gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, whose reign of terror over Boston lasted for three decades up until his incarceration in the early '90s. This is a fascinating doc, including interviews with everyone from cast and crew (including Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg) to various cops and journalists who profiled the case, to Bulger's own priest. I love background like this, because it only enhances our appreciation for the film and its characters. This one is well worth a watch.
Also pretty good is "Crossing Criminal Cultures," which runs 24 minutes. Culled from the same interviews used in the above piece, it examines 'The Departed' in terms of Scorsese's other "mob movies," including 'GoodFellas,' 'Mean Streets' and 'Casino.' Parallels are drawn between the films that speak to the director's love for the genre, his penchant for classic film noir, and use of recurring themes, mainly that of the rise and fall of a corruptible character in search of the American Dream. Though again hardly focused on the making of 'The Departed,' "Crossing Criminal Cultures" is still involving throughout.
Next we have a collection of nine Deleted Scenes. Totaling about 15 minutes, each features an introduction by Scorsese. Most are scene extensions, and fairly good as far as deleted material goes, in particular an extended deathbed confession that is rather moving, and some added texture to a few characters. Note that the only disappointment is the quality -- like the rest of the video-based extras described above, all the scenes here are presented in 480p windowboxed video only.
Rounding out the supplements package is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which is the only extra in full 1080p high-def.
(Note: The standard-def DVD release of 'The Departed' also includes an 85-minute documentary, "Scorsese on Scorsese," which has been dropped from both the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions. However, this extra was produced in 2004 for the Turner Classic Movies network, long before the director started work on 'The Departed.' It also still plays on cable, so its exclusion here is hardly fatal.)
After a career of mob movies, Martin Scorsese has delivered a career-best triple-whammy, with 'The Departed' a huge critical favorite, an Oscar shoo-in, and his biggest box office hit ever. It's a highly-entertaining genre picture, one perhaps a notch below 'GoodFellas' and 'Casino' in my book, but hey -- its Scorsese, it's the mob, and it's got a fantastic cast.
This HD DVD release delivers in spades, too. Great transfer, a Dolby TrueHD track, and extras comprehensive enough to tide any fan over until the inevitable double dip. But no matter -- this is certainly up there as a must-own HD DVD for any home theater enthusiast.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.