Hong Kong gangster movies don’t normally translate well for western audiences, so it seemed like a good idea to do a Hollywood remake of Hong Kong 2002 box-office success, Infernal Affairs.
Apart from its Hong Kong superstar cast, it had an intriguingly original premise: Mobster grooms a smart kid to become a policeman and rise to the upper echelons of the department, while a young undercover cop spends years infiltrating the mob. When the two moles discover each other’s existence they need to smoke each other out or die.
There’s no question The Departed is an entertaining and exciting movie, featuring a who’s who of Hollywood male actors: Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alex Baldwin, Martin Sheen (the latter in the role Robert DeNiro would have played except for a conflicting schedule).
However, it blows its chances of being really great by trying to improve on a clever blueprint.
Admittedly, the script comes up with a couple of good ideas. The character Mark Wahlberg plays is new to the plot, and his outrageously profane lines are an amusing distraction. Also, making Damon and DiCaprio’s love interest the same woman works very well.
Leo has the best role as the tortured undercover cop (previously played by adorable Tony Leung) trying to control his fear with drugs while falling for his court-appointed psychiatrist, Damon’s girlfriend. Can Leo confide in her? Complex themes of trust and deception are mirrored in the relationships of all the main characters, but ultimately, director Martin Scorsese settles for simple crime and punishment issues and it feels like a shallow sell-out of what has gone before.
Scorsese is far too explicit a director -“ every violent scene is much longer and more detailed than in the original, so that the rapid succession of gory killings near the end elicited inappropriate laughter from the preview audience.
In an earlier scene in Infernal Affairs, there’s a terrible shock when a body lands on a car without warning after falling from a rooftop. Scorsese gives us advance notice with a slo-mo shot of the body falling and then tries to trigger the audience’s shock by drenching a bystander in the victim’s blood. Memo to Marty: sometimes, less is more.
Jack Nicholson’s character is another major problem. Jack always plays larger than life and, as usual, there’s a lot of entertainment value in his over-the-top baddie. However, after he was cast he reportedly worked with the writer to enlarge what was a considerably smaller role.
The Departed is nearly an hour longer than Infernal Affairs, and most of that extra hour is Jack. Long before the end, we have had time to see the holes in the plot gaping wider and wider.
So, wrong director, wrong star. If you’re curious, check out the much superior original on DVD -“ locally released, subtitled, and readily available.