With The Departed, Martin Scorsese has paid the Hong Kong New Wave the highest possible compliment. After years of having the likes of John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai dedicate their films to him, Scorsese has adapted a Hong Kong hit: Andrew Lay and Andy Mak’s Infernal Affairs. If only he had approached the project at the height of his game.
Where The Departed borrows directly from the 2002 original, it is tight, entertaining and suspenseful. Where it seeks to build in new elements (it’s 50 minutes longer than Infernal Affairs), however, Scorsese’s film is an unbalanced mess, marred by self-indulgent performances, incomplete character development and too many of the same old tricks.
Infernal Affairs succeeded in large part because of its astonishingly unique premise: a crime boss grooms a local kid to be a mole in the police department at the same time as the cops place an undercover agent in his inner circle. Both organizations know they’ve been infiltrated, but the identity of the two moles remains unclear until the climax. Had Scorsese allowed the premise to be the star of The Departed, it might have worked. But then again, if Scorsese had allowed the premise to take centre stage, he wouldn’t have been Scorsese.
Uncle Marty hasn’t transplanted the film to New York’s Italian crime circles, but rather hopped the train to Beantown, settling amongst a cadre of comparably foul-mouthed Irish Catholics. The big boss man is Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson doing the Joker without the make-up), a coked-out maniac who walks the tightrope of sanity. Many years earlier, Frank had taken a shine to young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), quickly replacing the Catholic Church as the most instrumental educational force in the kid’s life. Now Sullivan looks the part of a straight-and-narrow cop, a man with one eye on the street and one on a promotion. What no one knows, however, is that whenever the “Staties” (the state police) get within inches of booking Costello, a cell phone text message alerts the madman to an escape hatch. The two salaries Sullivan earns as a result of his good work land him a swanky apartment and a beautiful psychologist girlfriend (a horribly miscast Vera Farmiga) to go with it.
Billy Costigan (Leonardo Di Caprio) is one half Southey and one half Beacon Hill. The moment he finishes police academy, however, Captain Dingham (an absurdly coifed Mark Wahlberg) and Chief Queenam (an inert Martin Sheen) spot a man in crisis with no real desire to be a cop. They offer Costigan a way out: he can go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s operation. Costigan takes the offer.
When he finds himself on the razor’s edge, however, living a lie and uncomfortably close to an increasingly unstable Costello (by the end of the film, he’s walking around with severed hands in his grip, splattered with blood), Costigan begins to loose track of himself. In a search for prescription drugs, he begins seeing—professionally and then unprofessionally—Sullivan’s girlfriend.
There you have it: a plot that most directors (and filmgoers) would kill for. All you have to do is allow it to work itself out and voila, you should have an edge-of-your-seat thriller on your hands. Unfortunately, Scorsese can’t quite pull it off. The real trouble begins with Nicholson. Where some (myself included) might be tempted to see Jack’s first collaboration with Marty as manna from heaven, it hasn’t really turned out that way. In an effort to play such an incarnation of evil, Jack leaps into the realm of the cartoony (Ray Winstone is far more menacing as Costello’s henchman, Mr. French). And Scorsese lets him. In so doing, the great director loses control of his film.
Scorsese’s attempts to add genuine psychological depth to Infernal Affairs fall flat. While some of the dialogue suggests that questions of male potency underlie much of the action, William Monohan’s script never really makes this clear. None of these characters are well developed. Everyone talks about Catholic guilt and deception and old emotional wounds, but none of it rings true. DiCaprio’s is the only character to convey much of anything about his struggle, but it’s often difficult to tell if he’s suffering through an existential crisis or if DiCaprio the actor is simply scared shitless bysharing scenes with an increasingly unstable Nicholson.
The Departed is not a bad film by any stretch. It’s just that a Scorsese movie must be held up against a higher standard. This is an entertaining and consistently well-paced thriller. It has a superb payoff and those who haven’t seen Infernal Affairs will no doubt do a fair amount of gasping. But no, it’s not a big league Scorsese film; it’s a mess. Butt a Scorsesean C is an A- by most other standards.
The Departed is now playing at the Paramount, 259 Richmond St. W.; Silvercity Yonge and Eglinton, 2300 Yonge St.; Varstiy Cinemas, 55 Bloor St. W.; and others