The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Finally, something good has come out of the recent Hollywood fetish of Americanizing popular Asian films. Just this year, two Americanized Asian films left me in regretful boredom (Alejandro Agresti's The Lake House and Jim Sonzero's Pulse). Martin Scorsese's reworking of Infernal Affairs (Andy Lau & Alan Mak, 2002), the first of a trilogy touted as Hong Kong's answer to Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Trilogy, is an amazingly exhilarating feature from its first minute to last. William Monahan keeps the story of Infernal Affairs intact, updating it with some interesting details and additional characters and finally, uprooting the plot from the seedy underbellies of Triad-run Hong Kong to within the hugely Irish-run organized crime scene of Boston.
The title also gets a face lift. The Hong Kong films address relations that compares to a torturous afterlife. the American remake merely describes its set of characters as departed, or in less stylized language, dead. The title is apt. Almost all deaths in the film are caused by gunshots to the head (I can think of three deaths wherein the characters die in a different manner, two of which are still caused by gunshots, and none of which ends with survival), where there is no assurance of survival, no uncomfortable middle ground wherein one is given an opportunity to address his life decisions and the results of such in his afterlife. It seems that Scorsese instantly wants his audience to know that the characters in his mob film are dead men walking. He twists and turns them in situations wherein the only way out is death. In an uncomfortable twist of logic and Scorsese's dry humor, he appropriates the dictum that "dead men don't talk," especially dead men who weren't given a chance to talk at all. In the film where the value of life is equated to the revelations that could be spewed, the theme of death is all too palpable.
The story is simple. There are two sides: the police and the Irish mob. The Irish mob is headed by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a hedonistic and very hands-on mob leader. He dotes and lets Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) into the police as his rat, who gives his benefactor early warnings as to the police's operations and other very pertinent information. The police, under a very fatherly Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his mercurial assistant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), puts Billy Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) into the Irish mobster's inner ring by delegating years to make his transformation from cop to criminal believable. Two rats in both opposing sides, racing to discover each other.
But the film is a lot more than the plot whisked away from the Hong Kong original. Monahan successfully made the effective storyline into a purely American tale, a tale that Scorsese would be able to handle with his trademark talents. The plot is rooted in an American scenario of racial conflict: Irish against Blacks; Irish against zealot Catholics; American paranoia against the fastly developing Communist China. Then Monahan also intricately details the American police bureaucracy into the picture: making two department heads (head of Special Investigations Department played by a testosterone-laden Alec Baldwin), instead of the original one; adds the FBI into the picture complicating red tape and bureaucracy further. Monahan, with the help of a very macho-thinking director like Scorsese heats up the sexual politics and the romance, with the entry of a more believable, more humanly erring psychiatrist girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) of both opposing rats, as compared to the beautiful yet largely useless poster girl of the original film. Farmiga's psychiatrist adds a feminine dizziness into this machismo-driven picture. It's an altogether grittier picture, and with the careful eye for these little details, makes the outrageous plot a bit more plausible, and churns out a complexity that is both enticing and exciting.
Scorsese has been accused of being an Oscar-whore ever since he made two big budgeted epics that came too close to finally giving him the award. What Scorsese can't be accused of is being a lousy filmmaker. Scorsese doesn't waste any time in brewing up with useless details, instead he opens the film with Costello quoting, and like an evil pedophile, recruiting an Irish kid from an ice cream parlor with candies, milk, and a comic book. Costello storms up each scene he's in. His unpredictable nature, quick-tempered yet nobly fair (he pays up a huge sum of money after breaking Billy Costigan's hand numerous times) demeanor, makes his character into such a memorable personality, an improvement to Eric Tsang's triad leader, which I thought was a brilliantly played stereotype. Nicholson plays up the role with a deranged confidence that is both curiously comedic and scary at the same time.
Monahan juices up the mobster lord's role to the detriment of Queenan. One of the emotional thrusts of Infernal Affairs is the relationship that developed between the cop boss and his secret agent. It's a quiet paternal relationship that achieves full emotional power in one of the film's important plot movements. In Scorsese's remake, the relationship is kept to a minimum, or is at least shown subtly. There are little instances wherein I sense a bit of the fatherly relationship of Queenan and the undercover cop rise, and when it does show up, it makes the inevitable end to the relationship, more poignant. Juxtapose their relationship to Costello and his rat's, wherein the code alludes to such relationship, but in the end, results in something remarkably ironic.
The hugest difference I saw between Scorsese's The Departed and Infernal Affairs is the fact that the latter contained a religious thrust, a Buddhist implication that seemed to describe the relationships established in the film as a hellish endeavor. Scorsese's thriller is as mortal its title suggests. Religion and the accompanying salvation in the afterlife it promises is merely a backdrop. There seems to be a battle of good and evil in the film, but the Church is a non-player, and goodness is a wishy-washy thing. Evil, on the other hand is present in Costello's person. Scorsese seems to turn Boston into a battleground where evil has already won and the devil as finally incarnated on Earth. The stench of corruption is outrightly manifested. Even the supposed agents of goodness (in this case, agents of the law) act in despicable means, and again, have that impermanent tendency of turning into evil.
The Departed is a lot of things: a superb remake of a Hong Kong film, arguably superior to the original; a return-to-form for Martin Scorsese, an intelligently written police thriller, and easily, one of the best American films of 2006.