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The Departed ****

Smile, Martin Scorsese fans. The master has done it again.

“The Departed” is one of the best organized crime movies in years, and although it’s a genre Scorsese dabbles in quite frequently, it’s a far cry from the primitive battles in “Gangs of New York” and the glamour of “Goodfellas.” Instead, this is a modern, violent and incredibly entertaining look at the Irish mafia in Boston, told through the eyes of a filmmaker who knows how to build a story gradually and then let it slowly unfold into an ending of unthinkable Shakespearean proportions.

Unlike “Gangs” and “Goodfellas,” “The Departed” is a fictional story that’s actually based on a 2002 Hong Kong film entitled “Infernal Affairs.” William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) adapted the script to befit the Irish mafia and Massachusetts State Police, each of which has a mole infiltrating the other’s organization.

For mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the mole in the State Police is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who has quickly risen through the ranks and is now working with the Special Investigation Unit, whose main goal is to take down Costello. Conversely, Bill Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an officer with a checkered past who’s been asked by his superiors, Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen), to go deep undercover and infiltrate Costello’s gang, then leak information back to the police.

Uniting the men is a psychiatrist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), the lone character in the film who’s not a cop or criminal. She falls in love with Colin, who’s exceptionally smart and charming, and is forced to see Bill professionally in order to keep his cover looking legitimate (she thinks he’s a former officer who was jailed for assault and is seeing her as a condition of his parole). There’s little doubt that if she knew the truth about either man, she’d probably get as far away as possible.

The construction of the film is such that good and evil are established, corrupted, compromised and ultimately lost. This is not something that can be done easily: it takes time to develop characters and have them go through transitions, and at each step of the way there’s the risk of danger and betrayal. A lesser director could have been overwhelmed by the material, but the patient, deliberate pacing by Editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who’s been working with Scorsese since “Raging Bull” (1980)) finds the perfect rhythm and balance to the complex storyline. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ gliding camerawork provides a sense of movement and vitality; note the shadows on Costello’s face during the opening sequence, metaphorically painting him as a man of “darkness” and evil as he corrupts young Colin and makes him one of his own.

In spite of everything that is right with the movie, the best thing about “The Departed” is how relaxed Scorsese seems, which is refreshing. With “Gangs” and “The Aviator” you got the sense that he was playing to Oscar sensibilities by including gratuitously drawn-out action sequences, personal meltdowns and other melodramatic nonsense that the Academy loves to reward. “The Departed” marks a return to the basics that made him great in the first place, and with it comes (once again) one of the best movies of the year.