In the year 2006, a king got his due, a scoundrel bought his own hype, trilogies started to go wrong, and James Bond returned but not in a capacity where we’re gonna discuss him much.
So let’s instead settle into the moment where the Academy finally said “Okay, this Martin Scorsese not having an Oscar thing has gone on long enough.” I guess that “Martin Scorsese: zero Oscars, Three Six Mafia: one Oscar” joke Jon Stewart made while hosting the previous year’s ceremony stuck in some people’s craw a little.
Based on Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, The Departed is perhaps Martin Scorsese’s darkest crime flick. Recently appointed Massachusetts state trooper Billy Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sent undercover into the Irish mob of Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson)… who has his own agent he planted into the state police, Detective Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Billy tries to help his bosses (Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) build a case against Costello, while Colin tries to keep his boss (Alec Baldwin) from managing an arrest. The two informants begin to circle each other, each trying to find the other rat before they’re found out themselves. And then a whole bunch of people die.
It’s an incredible cast doing incredible work… unless you’re really attached to women having roles of depth and substance, because all this one offers is Vera Farmiga, who plays a police therapist that dates Colin but ends up close to Billy as well, which makes her just the worst therapist this side of The Punisher’s Hardly Quinn. Legend tells that Farmiga studied with a real police therapist who read the script and said her character did just everything wrong. Oh, also? Her character is a mash-up of two different Infernal Affairs characters. Despite already having a longer runtime than the original, Scorsese still couldn’t find room for two major female characters, and had to blend them into one pile of bad choices. Marty’s great at a lot of things, but female characters aren’t really one of them.
But she’s still good in the role, and the rest of the cast is still amazing. DiCaprio is a live wire, a non-stop panic attack living in daily fear of being identified by his homicidal boss. Damon plays it cooler, but remains compelling, leaning hard into the Boston accent everyone associates with his pal Ben Affleck. Nicholson is as good or possibly better than ever. Sheen and Baldwin give solid supporting roles. It mystified me that the only cast member to get an Oscar nomination was Mark Wahlberg. Yes he was good but they all were, why him. DiCaprio I understand: the studio was pushing him for Lead Actor for Blood Diamond instead (nomination, no win), and DiCaprio apparently refused to campaign against his castmates for Supporting Actor. How Wahlberg got the nod ahead of Nicholson, Damon, Baldwin, or Sheen remains a mystery to me. (He lost to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine, despite all buzz saying it would go to Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls.)
Is it Scorsese’s best? No, but like I said in the 90s, not everyone wins for their Schindler’s List or Titanic. And it’s far from his worst, not even his worst this decade, yes I’m still mad at Gangs of New York for having an ending that implies it deliberately wasted my time. Did he expect to finally get his Oscar for adapting a Hong Kong movie? Probably not, especially not one this violent. But it’s good Scorsese. It’s a tense, gripping, incredibly acted crime thriller that pulled no punches.
Sidebars… the whole “Every time you see an X someone dies” thing is hooey, you see Xs all the time, just also when people die. And I find it neat that the age of “What Does Martin Scorsese Have To Do To Win An Oscar” ended just in time to pass the torch to “What Does Leonardo DiCaprio Have To Do To Win An Oscar.” Marty had to do a film so dark he didn’t even like doing press for it, it hollowed him out so much, and Leo… well I’m sure you remember. It got gross.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Down at #51, in between Shakespeare in Love and Patton.
…I don’t like that.
Which Fellowship Movie Are You? The king finally ascends to the throne, after a long-fought battle. The Departed is Aragorn.
The Box Office Champ
I mean I wanted to talk about how 2000s trilogies went, and the pitfalls therein… would have rather done it with The Matrix… but fine. Let’s talk Pirates of the Caribbean.
Pirates of the Caribbean shouldn’t have worked. It was a movie based on a Disneyland attraction, and that was a weird pitch for a movie franchise (of course they wanted a franchise, they gave the first movie a subtitle, only Captain America and Remo Williams had that kind of confidence, and one of them shouldn’t have), and had not gone great for eventual How Did This Get Made subject The Country Bears. A movie whose target audience might only be Jenny Nicholson, and even then they whiffed it, because I’m pretty sure she like animatronics, not ALF style puppet beasts. Pretty sure.
But instead we got a super fun, Brendan-Fraser-Mummy style action-comedy with, if not horror, certainly spooky aspects. The writers took every section of the ride as a writing prompt. A pirate ship in a shootout with a fort? Prisoners luring a dog holding the key to their cell? A raucous port town? All there, moments from the ride recreated with human actors. Geoffrey Rush is made up to look like one of the animatronic pirates. And it’s all great! The action is fun, the comedy works (even if having comedy duo pirates and soldiers felt like overkill), they sell the class-based barrier between core duo Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) in a few moments and some acting choices from Bloom.
Plus it might be hard to remember, but in a time before Tim Burton ran “Johnny Depp being quirky” into the ground, Jack Sparrow was incredibly fun, and even now, rewatching, he still is. It helps that the original movie understood that Jack Sparrow was not the central character, even if he was top billed and most fun. The best comparison I can think of is that Jack Sparrow was the Genie from Aladdin. He’s fun to watch, he’s the character you most remember, but it’s not his story, it’s Aladdin and Jasime’s. Or in this case, Will and Elizabeth’s. I would say that this movie launched Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley into the A-list, but a) no, Lord of the Rings and Bend it Like Beckham did that, and b) it didn’t manage that for Coupling’s Jack Davenport, so maybe it wouldn’t have. Although in fairness Commodore Norrington, the by-the-books naval officer who’s in the way more often than helpful, was a thankless role. I just think the entire cast of Coupling should have been more famous.
It was a massive hit, if overshadowed by Frodo and Harry Potter, so it was inevitable that Disney would want more, and like so many hits of this era, someone pitched a Back to the Future-style trilogy, with a part two that expanded the mythology and ended on a cliffhanger, which we’d only have to wait a few months to see pay off.
So let’s get into that second chapter.
Problem the first: they forgot that Jack isn’t the main character. This was inevitable, but Jack’s wacky antics, like Austin Powers’ schtick, succumb to diminishing returns pretty quick. If you can keep the wit flowing, he works, but if you fall back on callback references (like revisiting “Why is the rum gone?”), he wears thin quick. But the real issue is that half the fun of Jack was how you never knew which side he was on. He was a delightful chaotic element in Will and Elizabeth’s story, but if you make him the central character (as he is here and going forward), we need to know who he is, what he wants, what he’s up to, and that diminishes the fun of Jack. (Also the idea of a love triangle between Will, Elizabeth, and Jack was so absurd they could never commit to it.)
Problem the second: not enough Barbossa. Not none, but not enough, Barbossa is a delightful presence in this franchise. To paraphrase Jenny Nicholson, he’s a pirate’s pirate, a classic “arr matey” menacing pirate, and to even partially redeem him is fun as hell, shame we have to wait until the next one for it.
Okay let’s just skim through some things so this doesn’t get too long: the end sword fight between Jack, Will, and a destitute ex-Commodore Norrington is fun like crazy and doesn’t have the first movie’s problem of “what stakes can a sword fight between unkillable undead pirates possibly have;” even through a layer of CG, Bill Nighy is great as Davy Jones, and his fish monster crewmen are a good substitute for skeleton pirates; if you’re going to make pirates your protagonists, and need villains to justify that (other than other pirates), you can’t ask for better than the East India Trading Company. They’re colonizers, they’re a corporation, they’ve taken control of the military and are thus cops, they are a 2021 trifecta of The Worst White People. A corrupt colonizing billionaire running the cops. Also Tom Hollander is underappreciated as an actor, dude has range.
All of that said, let’s look at the classic Second Movie Tropes Dead Man’s Chest has on display.
- Expanding the mythology, for good or ill. In this case, it’s mostly Jack’s compass. In the first movie, we just knew it didn’t point north, but did help him find the secret pirate treasure island. So the second movie feels a need to explain it, making the compass a key part of the story. Which isn’t so bad, but wait until they start taking the Pirate Code way too seriously.
- Side Character Gets More Screentime. In this case Jack, we talked about that. Worst case scenarios are Frank the Pug Syndrome, and in fairness this isn’t that.
- Raising the stakes. Jack and company are fleeing undead squidfaced sea spectre Davy Jones, who harvests the souls of those lost at sea, and has an unstoppable sea monster. A hell of a boost to the stakes, that if anything worked too well, because the third movie just… writes the kraken out offscreen. Lame.
- Cliffhanger ending. Jack Sparrow is in quite the predicament, the sinister head of the East India Trading Company is more of a threat than ever, there’s a distinct mood of “How are they gonna get out of this one,” and the only bright spot is that the villain of the first movie is back. Better the devil you know, and all that.
- Overreliance on stuff from last time. Yes, “Why is the rum gone” was a hilarious moment in the first movie, it didn’t need multiple callback references.
- Look I don’t know that this is a trope, I don’t have receipts, but they brought back so much of the original cast, including four of Jack’s ragtag crew members and the comic relief pirates (the comic relief naval men will be along soon), but not Zoe Saldana? She seemed important last time. Guess that was a lie. Please tell me no studio exec said “Look we’ve added Naomi Harris as the voodoo lady, two black women in the movie would just be confusing,” I hate how possible that is.
It’s still fun. It’s less fresh and original, which is inevitable in any sequel, but it’s still okay. But like Matrix Reloaded, its fatal flaw is that it’s incomplete: you need to watch the next one for any sort of closure. And, well… you know what let’s talk about another proper good movie before we get into that.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A sad 53% from critics, and a 72% from audiences, and I don’t know if you noticed, that’s low for a RT audience score. This is why I insisted on rewatching the first movie even if it wasn’t on the list: asking me to start with the second is irrational.
Other Events in Film
- This Year in Superheroes: Bryan Singer directs the Richard Donner-tribute Superman Returns, which still has its strengths including Parker “Good in Everything” Posey and Brandon Routh who’s an amazing Superman I have spoken, but has more sex offenders involved than I’d prefer.
- In retaliation for Singer doing a DC movie, Fox gives the third X-Men movie to human embodiment of jock strap stench Brett Ratner. Turning a franchise over to Brett Ratner shouldn’t result in a less rapey set, but… look I don’t wanna get into everything Singer and his pals pulled on the X-Men sets, but it’s dark, y’all, very dark, there’s a reason they recast Pyro after the first movie, Google it if you want.
- But just so it’s clear Fox was being bitchy, not progressive, James “Cyclops” Marsden (who built his career on losing the girl to less clean-cut rivals) followed Singer to Superman Returns (as the guy Lois dated while Superman was away, poor James Marsden), so X-Men: The Last Stand killed him off in the first 20 minutes.
- The Wachowskis adapt (but don’t direct) one of my favourite graphic novels, V For Vendetta. I’d probably like it if I could see past everything they cut or streamlined to fit into two hours.
- This Year in Bond: The studio takes the Batman Begins approach and starts the character over from his origins in the really quite good actually Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig debuting as Bond and Judi Dench remaining as M because that’s not a casting you walk away from if you don’t have to. Quentin Tarantino had pitched this one, but legend suggests he insisted on Bond playing baccarat instead of Texas Hold ‘Em, which in the 2000s was the be-all end-all of poker.
- Fast? Furious? The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is the absolute worst one, the only good things it did were introduce Han (canonical name: Han Seoul-Oh) and have moderately more interesting race sequences, albeit with worse characters.
- JJ Abrams brought a bunch of Alias energy to Mission: Impossible 3, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman may have given the franchise its best villain. The airplane interrogation scene is a masterclass.
- James Gunn makes the underrated horror sci-fi movie Slither, you should watch it.
- After Jersey Girl disappointed (yet is one of his best), Kevin Smith retreated to familiar ground with Clerks 2.
- Sasha Baron Cohen makes the ridiculous comedy skewering redneck America Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and 15 years later the sequel somehow has multiple Golden Globes and also Oscar nominations? Man times are weird.
- Sylvester Stallone returns to his most iconic character in the surprisingly effective and moving Rocky Balboa, giving the character a better end (for a time) than Rocky V did.
- It’s actually insane that I still haven’t seen Children of Men, given my love of awesome long-shots, or “oners,” as they’re known.
- 70s disaster movies enter the 2000s with the star-studded Poseidon, it’s tiresome, it did poorly, and not just because 9/11 killed America’s love of disaster movies, honestly I don’t know why I brought it up.
- Nor did audiences embrace disaster movies about 9/11, and this year had two: Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, and United 93. Audiences gave them a miss, by and large.
- Eli Roth surges to unfortunate prominence with torture porn move Hostel, and film as a medium gets slightly worse on average as a result.
- With Lady in the Water, it became clear that we as a people were over M. Night Shyamalan.
- Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan kick off the Step Up franchise.
- Cars from Pixar, which is basically Doc Hollywood with sentient cars, gives a prominent role in the movie (and moreso the trailer) to Larry the Cable Guy, so I decide to skip this one. Still haven’t seen it. Not sorry.
- Sharon Stone is talked into doing a sequel to the 90s erotic thriller that launched her, Basic Instinct. It… does her no favours.
- There are those who claimed that Snakes on a Plane proved that internet buzz did not translate to box office success. I felt Serenity had already proved that.
- Christopher Nolan makes the Victorian magician movie The Prestige, and apparently I’m the only idiot who preferred rival Victorian magician movie The Illusionist with Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel. (Hollywood can never make just one of anything.) Maybe I was just really excited that I was no longer a projectionist and could go to an advance preview screening on a Wednesday for a change.
- German director Uwe “Worst Videogame Movies Possible” Boll adapts Bloodrayne, a video game about a sexy half-vampire killing Nazis, and somehow left out the Nazis. Funny, that. Ben Kingsley is in it because Uwe Boll somehow got better and better casts until Germany closed the tax loophole that kept him going, and man you have never seen Ben Kingsley put in less effort.
- Deck the Halls is a Christmas comedy so bad that while filming it, Matthew Broderick lamented that his career was now definitely over.