If you’ve had a chance to catch Wai Keung Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs trilogy, then you will know that the series is Asia’s equivalent to The Godfather(1972), only without the underwhelming third instalment. It’s a brilliant slice of Hong Kong cinema, intelligently written and taut, that found critical success in both the East and the West. And it was with some dismay that fans heard that there was to be Hollywood remake.
Remakes of movies from Asia have, frankly, been a mixed bag. There have been moderately successfully translations, such as The Ring (2003), Gore Verbinski’s take on Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998); but for every worthwhile remake, there are dozens of crappy, pointless ones, such as the recent Pulse (2006), an uninspired reworking of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 movie Kairo.
When it was revealed that Martin Scorsese was to helm the picture, things took a more interesting turn. Scorsese is one of America’s finest directors, but his guiding hand does not guarantee a great movie. He’s certainly more consistent than his contemporaries, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and George Lucas but there are a couple of duds in his portfolio such as Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and Gangs of New York (2002) misfired as often as it struck gold. The latter film teamed Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time, who appears to have replaced Robert De Niro as the director’s favourite collaborator.
DiCaprio put in an a spirited performance as Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s next picture, The Aviator (2004) which everyone was sure would clinch Scorsese an Oscar, an award that has inexplicably eluded him despite being nominated an astonishing five times and making some of the most critically acclaimed films in Hollywood’s history. He missed out once again, but perhaps The Departed might just win him an Academy Award.
William Monahan’s screenplay, based on the original script by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, relocates the action to Boston, and features an Irish-American crime underworld rather than Hong Kong’s Triads. The Boston Police Department have infiltrated the gang of one of the city’s most notorious villains, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), while Frank has his own mole in the Police. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, the undercover cop who has surreptitiously wormed his way into Costello’s gang; and Matt Damon is Colin Sullivan, a successful officer who is feeding information to Costello. Costigan and Sullivan gradually become aware of each other’s existence, although not their identity, in a tense and bloody game of cat and mouse.
DiCaprio and Damon are right on the money with their rock solid performances, and make the perfect foils for each other. Nicholson, constantly on the cusp of putting in one of his classically deranged performances, reels things in to make Costello a believable violent sociopath who refuses to be intimidated by the police.
Scorsese, too, does nothing showy or anything special with the framing, and yet the screen crackles with energy and tension, and makes this easily his best film in a decade. There are a couple of misfires in the movie, however. Mark Wahlberg’s caustic officer Dignam is a great role with the wrong actor filling it. And what’s going on with his spammy hair? The sub-plot where Sullivan’s psychiatrist girlfriend Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) also dates Costigan somewhat over eggs the pudding and strains credulity, but has some important plot considerations so I’m tempted to let it slide.
Fans of the Hong Kong original will be pleased to see some of their favourite scenes return, such as the rooftop confrontations, but Scorsese has succeeded in making this version of the film his own. Infernal Affairs and The Departed are different films sharing the same source, and I think it’s possible to appreciate both equally. The Departed feels like vintage Scorsese, and if this doesn’t scoop him a raft of awards, including an Oscar, then I can’t imagine what will.