October 16, 2006

The Departure

Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" has been well received by English-language newspaper critics. The director has said in these reviews that while the narrative was taken from the 2002 Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs", his version, with its Boston setting, is a different tale, told in its unique way.

Which is true - I saw "Departed" last night with my wife. It is a good Scorsese crime flick, with plenty of tough-guy banter, bang-bang and bravado. We both preferred the original but "Departed" is good entertainment, particularly if you haven't seen "Infernal Affairs".

More interestingly, though, is the comparison between how an American tells the story versus, well, someone else. I'm going to talk about plot details here so if you haven't seen "Departed" but plan to, stop reading. If you don't care but are interested in my cultural take, or if you've already seen either flick, please carry on.

There is one major structural change in the US version, a new character played by Mark Wahlberg. Throughout most of the film, his role is unclear. He appears to be there mainly to liven up the hard jive.

The gist of this part of the story is that Leonardo di Caprio (in the Tony Leung role) is going to be kicked out of the police academy, jailed and sent in under deep cover to infiltrate the local mafia, headed by Jack Nicholson (Eric Tsang's character).

In the HK version, the only person in the world who knows that this man is actually a cop is the police chief, played by Anthony Wong. The two develop a father-son bond, with Wong keeping Tony Leung from going completely nuts. Martin Sheen has this duty in "Departed" but with Mark Wahlberg keeping company. It's not a major role in the movie; once Sheen's character is murdered, Wahlberg disappears.

"Infernal Affairs" is not just about a cop in the mafia, but simultaneously a criminal who has infiltrated the police, played by Andy Lau; both the crime lord and the police chief know each of them has a mole and the movie is a cat-and-mouse between them. Matt Damon plays this guy in the Boston version.

Andy Lau, through guile and sheer luck, survives. Everybody else ends up dead, except for his girlfriend, a government psychiatrist (Kelly Chan/Vera Famiglia), who leaves him out of disgust. Lau's character goes on to be feted, however, as the believed hero who brought the bad guys to justice.

It's a shocking, terrific ending. Among some of the HK action movies I've seen, there is a preference for mawkish endings that aren't so much hard-hitting as they are bathetic. But "Infernal Affairs" worked in part because of its quick editing and fine direction (by Wai Keung-lau and Siu Fai-mak) - and because it was genuinely edgy.

"Departed" is also edgy and full of violence, some of it pretty explicit. But it makes one error. In the very last scene, we realise why Mark Wahlberg's character was created: to come back and assassinate Matt Damon's bad guy.

In other words, Scorsese couldn't handle leaving the bad guy triumphant. Even though all the good guys - Sheen, di Caprio, etc - get wasted, he needed an angel of vengeance to fire the last bullet. So he created one.

I can't say whether this ending is better or worse, but it certainly holds true to Hollywood's insistence on a happy ending, and general inability to swallow real life whole. (Not that "Infernal Affairs" is an exercise in documentary, but you get my drift.)

Regardless of one's preference for endings that give Good justice over Evil, Scorsese's insertion of this extra character plays unexpected havoc along the way. My wife pointed out that, although she liked Leonardo di Caprio's performance, she found his character lacked the empathy with Martin Sheen that gave "Infernal Affairs" its humanity.

Wahlberg keeps getting in the way, running his mouth off, swinging punches. The effect means that Sheen is just di Caprio's boss. Attempts at the fatherly touch fall flat. And it therefore makes di Caprio's situation a little less believable; no one would endure that hell just for a paycheck, but they might out of loyalty to their substitute dad.

Scorsese fluffs some of the details as well. The best scene in "Infernal Affairs", the most powerful punch, is when Eric Tsang's thugs hurl police chief Anthony Wong out the window and he lands on a car in front of Tony Leung. It's an amazing, horrifying surprise, and you feel Leung's sorrow - he is now truly on his own, no one in the world knows that he's not a criminal but an undercover - and he's just lost his patriarch.

Not only is the emotional flow less strong with Sheen's death, but Scorsese gives the surprise away by showing Sheen's falling body.

Finally, Jack Nicholson almost hijacks "Departed" with his performance as...Jack Nicholson. His part has been greatly amplified versus Eric Tsang's pragmatic, quick-thinking gangster. Of course, if Hong Kong had a Nicholson, it would have used him! Eric Tsang doesn't do much for me and I don't find him especially threatening. Nicholson can ooze menace. But he's allowed to have too much time on screen. Fortunately Matt Damon and Leonardo di Caprio are powerful enough to keep the movie planted on them. They're not Michael Keating getting second billing as Batman. And Scorsese is careful to keep the story on track.

On the plus side, Vera Famiglia is good as the shrink/love interest, if for no other reason than by default, as Kelly Chan is not a good actress. This role has also been expanded, although I think some of it came from the HK sequel "Infernal Affairs 2" which developed her role and back-story. It was necessary because Scorsese tells the story from its beginning, whereas "Infernal Affairs" tended towards sometimes-confusing flashbacks, which was probably its weakness. And my wife also found Matt Damon's baddie a little more compelling than Andy Lau, although she's mum on which one she finds cuter...I'm guessing she's more of a Tony Leung lady anyway.

Posted by Jame at 10:19 AM GMT

I thought that Mark Wahlberg scene at the end, especially with the rat, was really stupid and pointless.
I think the movie had two big questions that ruined the believability. 1) why was DiCaprio doing it? What did he gain? Just some money? and 2) Why was Damon doing it? What did he gain? He had a nice job in the police force, what was he getting out of it?

These weren't really addressed.

Posted by: Andrew on October 17, 2006 03:30 PM

Sometimes you have to accept the suspension of disbelief. Greed and shame can be powerful motivators. But the Hong Kong version's structure - which began with the equivalent of the scene showing the deal with the Chinese gang - was so fast that you didn't have much time to think about it. Scorsese opted instead to tell the whole story in chronological order. I don't think his version is worse in this respect but "Infernal Affairs" had a certain careening punch that didn't give you time for reflection.

Posted by: Jame on October 18, 2006 11:09 AM

I just saw this flick last night and added the HK version to my Netflix queue. I have to say that I really enjoyed it despite being someone who cringes at violent movies. In fact, I walked out of the theater during Gangs of New York and got my money back.

Posted by: michelle on October 21, 2006 06:54 PM

I just saw this flick last night and added the HK version to my Netflix queue. I have to say that I really enjoyed it despite being someone who cringes at violent movies. In fact, I walked out of the theater during Gangs of New York and got my money back.

Posted by: michelle on October 21, 2006 07:30 PM

Actually the best movie I've seen lately is "Volver" but I don't think I have anything more to say about it.

Posted by: Jame on October 23, 2006 03:19 AM

Hi! I love your blog! Your thoughts on the movie, The Departed, are interesting. Here are mine!

Posted by: sac on October 23, 2006 07:53 PM