Costello, who has a spade beard and fancies opera, rules a small piece of Beantown. A throwback, the cocky primitive swaggers amusingly over his small, vicious gang.He has almost all the brains, and even the savviest of his killers (Ray Winstone) is like an ape dimly aware of James Cagney.
Martin Scorsese's film, stretched like an epic but often feeling like a TV series chopped and packed as a movie special, relies on Nicholson to steal scenes of unsure worth. He is at the center of rival young cops on the state force (the "staties"): Leonardo Di Caprio's Costigan, whose rootless identity makes him an easy inside plant in the Costello mob, and Matt Damon's Sullivan, as a kid favored by Costello and now a snappy, hustling detective spying for Costello in the force.
The story is simply about which mole will be outed first by the other. Vera Farmiga is Madolyn, the rather naive police psychiatrist the young bulls share, the one female treated somewhat humanly. Others are whores and porn bait, and Nicholson is the master misogynist, spewing foul lingo and absurdly insulting a teen girl.
Departed from the film is too much of Scorsese's talent. Irish Boston is not his turf. Letting Costello feel superior to pedophile priests is a dismal reduction of Scorsese's famed Catholic themes. The director's taut ricochet of profanity and violence feels rote and showy, a lesson pounded into an increasingly jaded class, with a sagging crescendo of murders. "This ain't reality TV!" Costello barks, but we could use TV realism like the far more subtle show about the morally compromised Rhode Island Irish, "Brotherhood." Stapled together with computer scans and cellphone calls, and cheap devices like Madolyn's youthful photo (to bring out Costigan's sensitivity and Sullivan's basic indifference), the story crams in hot tunes or some sex whenever the threat of violence sags.
A shortfall is that Damon and DiCaprio play morally slushy characters, lacking much growth or complication. They fret their roles, fatigued by lumpy writing, though Damon fits the milieu. Not just king rooster Nicholson but other old pros like Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin grab the stage easily, and Mark Wahlberg is effectively simple, as an angry cop defined by hate.
The script has Hong Kong roots ("Internal Affairs," 2002), yet no star can save the warehouse episode with visiting Chinese hoods, not even Nicholson sneering, "No tickee, no laundry." Scorsese has never had a great ear except for songs, and his itch to pick up a scene with a jolt, a snapper, a crudity, often betrays his actual sensitivities.
Main scripter William Monahan ("Kingdom of Heaven") achieves a rhythm of industrially low-grade and sadistic hysteria. A lot of talent bought into this, but can they sell it? Crime stories have become incredibly generic, and though this is not a pit like "Miami Vice," some bursts of good staging and imagery only serve to remind us that Scorsese is a streak gambler who can get stuck with the wrong hand.
A Warner Bros. release. Director: Martin Scorsese. Writer: William Monahan. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin. Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes. Rated R. 2 stars.