An American remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s immensely successful Hong Kong triad thriller Infernal Affairs was probably inevitable from the moment the germ of its conceit emerged from its screenwriters’ heads: a mob kingpin sends one of his bright pennies deep undercover in the police force while a young cadet is hustled out of uniform and into the mob as a mole, their identities known only to their handlers; when their respective presences become apparent, both are assigned to smoke out the other (by their real superiors) and themselves (by the superiors they feign allegiance to). Here, then, is The Departed, its both-ends-burning gamesmanship transposed to Boston’s Irish gangs and state troopers, and the fodder for Martin Scorsese’s ripest movie in at least a decade.
Scorsese and his usual synced-up collaborators, cinematographer Michael Balhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, are in effortless virtuoso mode, their fluid jumps through temporal and spatial hoops teaching their audience to process narrative information with more efficiency than most filmmakers assume their viewers are capable of. It’s not hyperactive filmmaking by any means, but it is energized — if a tight foot chase is momentarily interrupted when the tail sees first his own reflection, and then his target, through the mirrored strands of a wind chime, well, it’s probably because Marty got so caught up in the rush that he couldn’t help it. And he is, as ever, equally exhilarated by violence and its consequences. Both Infernal Affairs and Departed wring suspense from the threat of detection, forcing their dual protagonists ever deeper into their assumed identities; for Scorsese, unsurprisingly, it’s a matter of compelling his charlatans to steep themselves in blood, via visceral hypermontage or deadpan splatter art, to maintain their charade.
As undercover cop Billy Costigan, Leonardo DiCaprio’s post-pinup pouchiness is a reasonable equivalent to Tony Leung’s rhythm-dictating world-weariness. But while frequent Wong Kar-wai surrogate Leung was the focal point for most Western critics, the real revelation of Infernal Affairs was his counterpoint Andy Lau’s discovery of a theretofore unexplored core of melancholy within his usual sharkskinned egotism. As Colin Sullivan, sent into the force by underworld doyen Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), Matt Damon has some of Lau’s steel-edged social skills, so its disappointing that a duplicitous climber is all he’s allowed to be (he’s the only character in the movie who sheds layers as it goes).
In a significant improvement over Infernal Affairs, Departed combines the characters of Sullivan’s in-the-dark girlfriend and Costigan’s court-ordered shrink confidant, and provides a role of substance for Vera Farmiga. Sparring with Damon and DiCaprio over who’s in charge of defining her identity, she grounds the movie outside of the boys club cops-n-robbers fantasy it might otherwise become. (In this sense, her performance has less to do with either of its antecedents than with the part played by Carina Lau in Infernal Affairs II.)
As paced by Scorsese, William Monahan’s script spaces out the switchbacks and set pieces of the original script; Departed comes close to treating its hook as credible, rather than the plot twist hanger it probably is. Still, it’s a jerryrigged piece of work, and to no one’s surprise Monahan is seen planting characters early in anticipation of a last-act harvest, and eventually shooting his way out of a narrative dead-end even more crowded than his source’s.
Monahan’s dialogue is the kind that actors love speaking — that is, the kind that’s full of macho-dada aphorisms and a metrical distribution of creative profanity. The first time I heard Alec Baldwin’s Masshole accent I almost laughed out loud; then I watched a little more of his cop-as-overgrown-adolescent-booger-flicker shtick and realized that that was exactly what he was going for. And there’s Nicholson as Costello, whose arc from larger-than-life to toppling-from-bloat can be traced in the two hours it takes for his Chesire Cat grin to go from Mephistopheles to The Man Who Laughs. (His descent into the heart of darkness, like Brando’s, is sideshow mugging on the center stage.) The lone exception is Martin Sheen as Costigan’s TV President supervisor, perhaps because he knows by what method the script plans to bestow gravitas upon his character. Hint: it’s one of several sequences lifted almost verbatim from Infernal Affairs.
And so, ok, here I go, and people with low tolerance for Asian cinema fanboys should probably stop reading now: satisfying as it is to have a reinvigorated Scorsese to kick around some more, The Departed stays squarely in the shadow of its template. Infernal Affairs represented an entire system of Hong Kong moviemaking — MTV-edited, swollen-scored flashy-derivative simulacra of Hollywood’s genre myths, overevolved into an echo chamber of heightening effects by the time John Woo and his “Heroic Cinema” packed their bags for Hollywood — straining with every slo-mo betrayal to transcend its own sleek packaging. The grandeur of Infernal Affairs is less in the achievement than the striving; Departed has everything within its grasp. (The exception’s the music: Scorsese, who was a soundtrack savant back when Zach Braff was just a homemade Bread tape in his daddy’s sweaty palm, uses the Stones’ dire “Gimme Shelter,” a Dropkick Murphys barroom brawl anthem, and a Van Morrison cover of “Comfortably Numb” as motifs, to be called upon when a little throb is required.) It’s all there in the last shot, zeroing in on an appropriately cheeky closing image and leaving a far more pathos-riddled bookend to languish neglected on the floor. Opens October 6