Martin Scorsese’s films are considered a form of art in America. However, I’ll admit that I went to see his latest movie, The Departed, without knowing much about his previous works. I just wanted to see how the remake of Hong Kong’s classic hit, Infernal Affairs, turned out. I guess going in there with a mentality like this, I was carrying a burden of comparison between the two. I wonder if it ruined the movie for me, and I wonder if everyone who has seen the orignial felt the same way as I did.
In The Departed, a young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is recruited by a powerful mob boss, Frank Costello, played by the always sinister Jack Nicholson, and placed in the police acadamy as a rat. He delivers news about raids so that Costello can conduct his business without getting caught. Meanwhile, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a member of a crime family, thinking that his ties with mobsters are gone after his mother’s death, also joins the academy to pursue a career as a cop. His background makes him unfit as a police officer, but a perfect candidate for a mole inside Costello’s gang. Thus, the game begins.
What distinguish this story from other movies about undercover cops is that its focus is not only on how to get the bad guys, but also on the internal struggle of the cop himself. And DiCaprio did a good job with his role as a tortured Costigan. He is tough when he needs to be, but the audience also get to see his frustration, weakness and fear. This should show the people who have not been aware of his ability as an actor. Damon is also great as the sneaky and shrewd Sullivan playing both sides. But this is where the effect of seeing the original weighs in. Andy Lau’s character showed us his desire to become a "good cop" by any means necessary. This subplot is described in The Departed. Sullivan seems to want a new life with a crime-free bonus, but not to the point where he is delusional about being a truly good guy. This takes away a bit of dramatic depth from the story, but I guess this is not an important point that Scorsese wants to address.
The supporting cast should also be recognized for their great performances. The incredible Jack Nicholson, of course, threatens to steal the show every time he is on screen. He is so cocky, heartless, and suspicious as the mob boss, he reminds me of a king or emperor in mythology, where his power is feared by all, yet someone is always secretly planning to take him down. The affectionate Martin Sheen, entertaining Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin also come into their own. Especially in the case of Sheen and Wahlberg, in their limited screen time, the audience grew to love them and root for them. This always spells success in my book.
In the 152-minute running time, The Departed has got a slow start for those who know the characters and the basic story already. But once the find-the-inside-mole game starts, the movie really picks up and every scene is intense and thrilling to watch. My beef with the movie is the massive killings at the end. I’ve been told this is classic Scorsese’s style. He doesn’t tone down the violence and always give happy endings. I have no problem with the violence or even who lives and who dies at the end, it’s how and why it’s done. The pace of the ending may heighten the surprise element, but too much too soon just makes it silly and funny, at least to me. This is where having seen the original ruins the movie for me. The surprise is not so surprising, and the backstory takes a backseat to the big movie stars in front. Moreover, maybe as a Chinese, the Buddhist inspiration behind Infernal Affairs appeals to me, but it’s too preachy to westerners. Nonetheless, The Departed is better than many other movies of this subject. The story, characters and great performances alone make it worthwhile to check it out. For those who have seen the original like me, if you’re trying to compare the two movies, you’re likely to be disappionted.
NOTE: All photos © Warner Bros. Pictures