So this movie is not for everyone. I have to start with that. If you don't like violent movies, if you don't like crime dramas, or if you simply don't like taut thrillers, don't watch this movie. Go watch something else like The Lion King, it was just re-released in 3D (don't get me started on 3D, stupid Disney). For those of you who do like taut thrillers with deep characters and dramatic plot twists around every corner, see this movie. You don't even need to read my review if you like those things, you will like this movie. If you are more like, well some are good and some not so much, than read on and see what you think.
Let me just get one other thing out of the way before I get into the real meat of this review. I am a HUGE fan of Martin Scorsese, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Leonardo DiCaprio. For me, these 4 can do no wrong, except for The Pledge (sorry Jack, but that ending just killed it for me) and The Aviator (Marty just kind of threw up all over that one). But all movie actors and directors have a few stinkers, even distinguished ones such as these. So you may want to take this review with a small grain of salt, I am going to do my best to make it semi objective, but that will be very hard for me with all 4 of these great actors in it. Now, onto the review!
So the movie has 3 main characters and a host of supporting characters bringing up the rear. The three main characters are Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the Irish mob boss, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a too smart 20-something from a bad south Boston neighborhood who has family in Costello's gang, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), an up and comer from the same neighborhood as Billy that Costello took a shine to when he was very young. Each character is morally ambiguous and you are never fully sure if Billy or Colin is the protagonist of our story. Each character has their one main supporting character that is in the movie throughout. Billy's is Queenan, played wonderfully by Martin Sheen, Colin's is Ellerby, played excellently by Alec Baldwin, and Costello's is Mr. French, played terrifyingly and greatly by Ray Winstone. The other supporting characters are all very important to furthering the story, but I won't get into much in the review so I don't make this an overly long one. These are the main characters, and the ones we really need to know to be able to understand the movie.
The movie starts out with a few shots of Boston through the ages with a voice over by Costello saying, "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying - we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn't get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That's what the niggers don't realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it's this - no one gives it to you. You have to take it." This is essentially what the movie is about in its rawest essence, this along with the theme of loyalty and morality. We go on to see Colin in a store meeting Costello for the first time face to face. Costello offers a kindness to Colin and than offers him a way to make a little money since his parents died recently. This leads into a quick flash forward to Billy going through the police academy, while Colin does the same. When Billy graduates he has no one there for him, and when Colin graduates he is greeted by Costello with a gift for graduating and is told now the real work begins. We are meant to understand that Costello wants Colin to be an informant for Costello on the going-ons at the police department with regard to him and his crew. We see their different experiences going through it and than we see the difference in how they are treated and how they see the world as they are brought into Queenans office for the first time. Colin is told his is just a formality since he will be working directly under Ellerby as a task force to take down Costello. He is treated cordially, and than goes on to flirt with a secretary and show how he is just one of the guys. Than Billy goes in and has a very different experience. He is told that he must be in there just for a feeling of guilt from the way his family has been and that there is no way he will be a cop in another few year. They mention how he is more suited to be something like a rocket scientist with a brain like his. They also mention that his family wasn't something to be proud of on his fathers side. They offer him a deal, he goes to jail briefly and comes out to be a full time informant on Costello. Billy takes this deal and now the movie hits its stride. It is now from here a fully taut and at times humorous crime drama/thriller. The movie goes on in a fairly predictable, but never boring way, always with a fast and interesting pace. You can see from the beginning how the movie will play out to a certain degree. But remember, this is a Martin Scorsese film, and that the how isn't always as important as the why. Also, as in all Scorsese films, always expect the unexpected. There are a few scenes that I guarantee will catch you off guard and perhaps change your way of thinking about how the movie will play out. Just when you think you can see what will happen next, something else happens, and it changes your entire outlook on the movie.
Now this wouldn't be a Scorsese film if there wasn't excellent sound and camera work. The camera itself is almost a character. Pulling in when you don't expect it to, with angles that you wouldn't normally expect from a movie like this. The movie, despite its obviously high budget, always seems to make you feel gritty in a way, and reminds you that this is a director who used to film in the streets of New York City with a single camera that barely could capture the people on film. You never lose the feel that you are there thanks to the camera, and you never forget who you should be paying attention to. The sound is equally fitting with a few actual songs that set the moods properly, including an incredible version of Comfortably Numb with Van Morrison doing the lead vocals with Pink Floyd that simply needs to be heard if you like Pink Floyd at all. The ambient noises of the city keep you in the right mindset when you are watching Billy, and the lack of them reminds you of the life Colin leads in contrast. The overall score is excellent and sets the mood for each and every scene, and the scenes where there is just the actors talking and the ambient noises of the city around them creates moods that you would never expect.
All in all this movie is a must see for anyone who likes a good crime drama or just a really great story with both thriller and dramatic elements. Just keep in mind that, again, it is a Martin Scorsese movie, so the violence and language is not even close to being kid friendly, and if you can't handle those two things in a movie, don't watch this one. There is enough swearing to make a 1920s cathouse madam blush. If you don't mind those two things, than you are going to enjoy this film immensely. I bought it when it initially came out on DVD, and if you know me, you know that is a big deal. I don't buy movies often, I just usually watch them and than return them to that little red envelope service we all know and love. This movie I saw in the theaters when it came out, and than bought as soon as it was available on DVD. I loved it that much, and still do. If you like Scorsese, Nicholson, and/or crime dramas, don't miss out on this one. You won't be sorry. You keep reading them, and I'll keep writing them.