dir: Martin Scorsese
The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao) manages something few remakes ever do: it improves on the original and contributes something more than just proving that there are no new ideas left in Hollywood.
People will argue endlessly over which is the better film, but it’s an irrelevant argument. Both films stand independently of each other, and do what they do best in their own ways. It’s not a competition, after all.
Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan take as much as they need from the original script, and add enough distinctive original material to make the film their own. They go to a lot of trouble to add substantial detail to make the story look like a product of its place and time, which makes many of the more central characters seem more believable.
The story is transplanted from Hong Kong to Boston, and the villains are transformed from triad gangsters to an Irish mob led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). With the location change, the premise remains the same: two men pretend to be something they are not.
Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a cop who is undercover as a gangster. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a gangster who is undercover as a policeman. Both know about the existence of the other. Both know that if the other one finds out their identity, they’re dead. This makes for a fairly stressful work environment for both men.
They both have tough bosses who expect results. The crime boss wants to stay protected, and to find out who the rat is in his ranks. For the cops, they want to find the mole in the department, and to bring down the very violent and very dangerous Frank Costello.
The two cop-criminals wrestle with their jobs and their personal lives, as the burden of having dual identities takes its toll in different ways. It all leads to a climax that even those who’ve seen Infernal Affairs will be surprised by.
It is a remarkably well-made film, which shouldn’t be a surprise coming from a director of Scorsese’s ability and experience. He gives the characters room to breath, and lets them off the leash to, in some instances, give the best performances of their lives. DiCaprio, reprising the Yan role so well played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai in the original, is fantastic. You don’t doubt for a single second of the film that he is the tortured character he is playing. It’s the best performance in a film overflowing with good performances.
Jack Nicholson does what Jack Nicholson does best, which is over-act, but he mostly dials down the volume so as not to completely overwhelm the film with his presence. As the crime boss, he is cunning, and brutal, and has a lot of ways of getting across the viciousness that he is capable of with only the tone of his voice. Make no mistake, there is a lot of blood and violence in this film, far more than the original, and there is no holding back on depicting the cruelty men are capable of. That’s a summary of Scorsese’s entire career right there: men swearing a lot and being very violent towards each other.
There is less of the paralleling of the two main characters in this version, in that you don’t get the impression that they could both have ended up in the other’s place had circumstances been different, or that their approach to their complicated lives have a lot of similarities.
Another significant departure is in the role of the police chief, which, in the original was portrayed by the formidable Anthony Wong Chau-Sang. The role here has been split into three characters only to give more struggling Hollywood actors some work. What Anthony Wong was able to do on his own, it takes Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin to do in the new film.
In fact all of the impressive cast contribute decent performances. The one female who gets much dialogue, Vera Farmiga as Madolyn, gives enough of a performance to stand out amidst all the macho posturing. Her role as a psychiatrist puts her in a unique position to act as a bridge between the two main characters, in more ways than one.
Damon plays the villain for once, and he does reasonably well with the role. He’s too complicated a character to just be called a villain, but there is still less of the ambiguity of the Ming character played by Andy Lau in the original. Sullivan seems motivated by the desire to not be found out, and to do whatever father figure Costello wants him to do. Ming wanted to do all that, and to be a good cop at the same time, which made his role even more complicated.
They spend a lot of time delving into the Irish history of Boston, and the unique experiences of the characters and where they come from. It’s not exactly trying to say that people are a pure product of their environment, since the two main guys come from virtually the same place and yet end up very different people, but it goes a long way towards that argument.
The film has many virtuoso shots, and looks great, thanks to the efforts of long-time Scorsese collaborators Michael Ballhaus behind the camera and Thelma Schoonmaker in the editing booth. The soundtrack is meticulously put together, like always, by Scorsese, as is every element of his films.
In the end, The Departed manages to differentiate itself from Infernal Affairs in a good enough way for audiences to get to enjoy both on their own terms. People are going to have loyalty to one or the other, and fight fiercely over it, at least on the internet, but it doesn’t need to be that way. They are both good films that tell similar stories, and manage to tell them in different ways.
8 times even Jack's notorious crap overdoing crap couldn't sink this flick out of 10
“I don't want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me.” Frank Costello, The Departed.