Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Departed/Infernal Affairs

Warner Bros./Media Asia Films
Directors: Martin Scorsese/Andrew Lau & Alan Mak
Length: 151 min./101 min.
Country: USA/Hong Kong
Format: 35mm/DVD

[MAJOR SPOILERS INSIDE - you've been warned]

We have here, with Martin Scorsese's The Departed and Andrew Lau and Andy Mak's Infernal Affairs, a shining example of how to remake a film (there are far too many similarities between the two for the new version to be considered a mere "inspiration" as Scorsese claims). Take a lackluster movie with a good premise and plenty of potential and work to create a new film that improves upon the source. And in almost every way, The Departed certainly does improve on Infernal Affairs.

Infernal Affairs is a big cult favorite, the result of lowered expectations on the part of both execs and audiences. The film can rightfully boast of a fun dual rat story, two genuinely thrilling and exciting set-pieces (the very long opening coke deal and SP Wong's demise), and two knockout performances by Eric Tsang (as mob boss Sam) and especially Anthony Wong (as SP Wong). Otherwise, the film is an exercise in mediocrity, suffering from pacing that alternates between rushed and overlong, half-assed lead performances by blandly charismatic Andy Lau (who also serves as director/producer) and the typically outstanding Tony Leung (perhaps my favorite actor of our time and one who could even make Zhang Yimou's Hero somewhat watchable - no small feat), ridiculous overstylization in the key of Bruckheimer (a character looking through a file is shown with 20 cuts and whip-pans), and a typically terrible and cheap-sounding HK score (with synths replacing orchestras, well, you get what you pay for).

The biggest crime of the film, though (no pun intended), is a all-too-often corny yet humorless script that affords no real characterizations or motivations whatsoever (though Tsang and Wong somehow manage to bring their respective characters up to two-dimensional). True, some characterization is given, but it never once helps us understand or sympathize with either of our leads or their utterly useless relationships (Lau's girlfriend is writing a novel about a man with multiple personalities! Get it? I guess mainstream American filmmakers aren't that only ones that think their audiences are stupid). Leung's Yan has a kid he doesn't know about developed only in a casually tossed-off reference. Lau's Inspector Lau has a girlfriend that he is nice to, and his coworkers don't trust him once he joins the Internal Affairs division. I'm not barely exaggerating when I say this is how deep the lead of the film is developed. How exactly did Lau and Mak expect us to care for any of these people? I think they cared only as much as they made a paycheck (further evidenced in Lau's performance).

Character motivation fares just as bad. Why does Inspector Lau decide to shoot his true boss, and why does he try and go straight at the end of film? Because he was caught? Because he felt remorse over what he had done? Because his criminality made his girlfriend cry? Why does Yan threaten to kill Lau only after it's established that only Lau can really help him? With no character laid out before this, there's no way for us to know and even less reason for us to care. This is not simply a case of extremely subtly motivation, or leaving it open-ended for the audience to figure (watching the film leaves no doubt that the filmmakers have zero faith in our intelligence). The writers (Mak and Felix Chong) didn't write any for us. It's rare to see a script this lazy. Any assertion of motivation given by an audience member would be giving the script too much credit.

The Departed is not without its flaws, but it almost entirely corrects those of its predecessor. It's easy to see Nicholson shooting for King Lear with his Irish crime boss Costello, but he shoots way too far, typically (these days, at any rate) taking his performance over the top while the rest of the film remains generally restrained. Eric Tsang played his Sam as a model of the ego-mad and flamboyant kingpin, a little crazed by his own success, perhaps, but never becoming embarrassing in his wild gesticulations as Nicholson does by the end of the film. The other major flaw of Scorsese's version is the combining of girlfriends into one character who goes between Damon's Sullivan and DiCaprio's Costigan. This subplot is overly contrived, but admittedly, having her turn out to be pregnant with Costigan's child is a nice touch, and deepens Farmiga's Madolyn to an excellent degree (in comparison with IA's woefully anemic girlfriend subplots).

Aside from these complaints, however, the film works wonderfully as a 40's or 50's film noir (of which Scorsese is a tireless champion) updated for our modern sensibilities and stamped with Scorsese's auteurist markings. The entire cast does a first rate job (though it took me a few scenes to get used to Wahlberg's Dignam), and Scorsese once again does a perfect job of matching rock music to his imagery - even accomplishing the very difficult task of making The Dropkick Murphys listenable. The film has an incredible amount of energy and stays tense throughout its 151 minute runtime, which go by much faster than IA's 101 minutes.

But where IA's script is so ridiculously weak, The Departed's is remarkably strong. The script uses a number of subtly but wonderfully developed fluid dualities, examining the distinctions between law and criminality, undercover cop and undercover criminal, father and son, impotence and virility, upper class and lower class, Italian and Irish (Boston seems the best American city for this film due in part to its notorious, continued racism as well as its heavy mob presence). On top of this, the characters are well fleshed-out with history and motivation, which help increase the tension between shifting allegiances and allow us to sympathize with all of the characters, even the asshole Dignam. When the dominoes fall at the end of the picture for damn near every character introduced, it's always truly surprising and thrilling (and bloody). Though the surprise of the second dirty cop in the unit may be a bit unearned, it's still damned effective. I can't think of a better ending of the film (and the rat past the gold dome is pitch-perfect), and can only imagine that the old film noirs would have been much like this if it weren't for that damned Production Code.

Infernal Affairs will most likely be remembered only as another bland Hong Kong actioneer made past the HK renaissance of the 80's and early 90's (well, I hope so, at least), but The Departed should stand as one of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces, and one of the better films on this decade.


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