To be fair, he has a dream cast--Jack Nicholson! Leonardo DiCaprio! Matt Damon! Uh, Mark Wahlberg--and a crackling script that turns even throwaway watercooler scenes into pinballing conflicts.

William Monahan's script transposes the action to Boston, where a joint FBI-Massachusetts task force is hunting an Irish mobster (Nicholson, a Bostonian apparently by way of Neptune) with the help of a hot-tempered cop so deep undercover nobody knows he's not a crook (DiCaprio). The mobster, meanwhile, has an inside man in Matt Damon, working as a golden-boy detective with some decidedly dark allegiances. When things start to smell fishy, The Departed becomes a game of chess between two skilled fakers who only need to know the identity of their opponent to win. The body count rises and facades crumble as each rat attempts to smoke the other out.

This sort of spy-versus-spy job is an easy thing to mangle, but Scorsese's shooting and storytelling is in top form. The Departed's narrative glides, and flashbacks seem not only seamless but necessary--vital to telling a complicated story at a measured pace that nonetheless bursts with vivid urgency. Scorsese stages the tense scenes with his usual visual flair and deftly matches the rhythm of the editing to the brutality of the violence on screen.

And all the while, he keeps the message-ball bouncing--when push comes to shove, what kind of choices can we make about who we are, and what do they cost us? The Departed may not offer any answers, just that honest men and liars share the same graveyards, but it dares you to think about the question. While this may not be Scorsese's finest film, it is without a doubt his most entertaining. The Departed is here to stay.

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