Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Infernal Affairs Vs. The Departed
As should've been clear from that Gangster Top Twenty list, I really love gangster movies, and I have something of an interest in real-life crime stuff...in honor of the arrest of James "Whitey" Bulger, the Boston crimelord, I decided to watch The Departed again.The Jack Nicholson character in the film, Frank Costello, is based on Bulger, and if you look at pictures of Bulger when he's grinnin', he actually looks like Nicholson.
Costello stuff aside, The Departed was a Hollywood remake of a Hong Kong flick called Infernal Affairs, and I watched that one again too, to see how it fared in a head-to-head matchup, with the remake really fresh in my mind. Well, the result was a perfect illustration of how a great big genius like Martin Scorsese just isn't the solution to every cinematic problem.
I'm a huge Scorsese fan; I think Goodfellas is the greatest mob movie ever...when The Aviator turned up on cable, me and my whole family were quoting the dialogue all the time, and during our vacation in Sedona awhile back, we used "The Way of the Future" as a password...whoever was inside the cottage would answer, "Come In With the Milk" and open the door.
That being said, Scorsese doesn't do everything well. He really isn't any good with thrillers, or stories with plots...consider his version of Cape Fear (drastically inferior to the J. Lee Thompson's original), or Shutter Island, which was utter bullshit from beginning to end, nonsensical and predictable at the same time. Nope; the guy's forte is realism.
Now you might say to yourself that a nasty cops-versus-gangster drama featuring moles dug in on both sides would play to all his strengths...but it doesn't. He might know the mean streets of NYC, but he doesn't know Boston. His scriptwriter, William Monahan, might, but Scorsese doesn't. You don't buy his Boston for one minute---or find it any different from any other Northeastern shithole city---even if you have a band howling about "I'm a Sailor's Peg, and I lost my leg!" at crucial junctures in the film.
Worse, the movie has a plot. It's really plot driven. In fact, there wouldn't be much of a reason for adapting Infernal Affairs if you weren't going to do a thoroughly plot-driven remake. But where that sort of moviemaking calls for discipline, efficiency, and proper structure with a lot of attention paid to the load-bearing members, Scorsese just seems kind a bewildered by the situation, and substitutes posturing and tough-guy mannerisms for sound storytelling.
Now in The Departed, we have two protagonists, one played played By Leonardo DiCaprio, and the other by Matt Damon. DiCaprio is a Southey kid who wants to escape his past and become a Massachusetts state cop, although the powers-that-be in the state cop establishment decide that he's only fit to go undercover...they assign him to penetrate Jack Nicholson's crew, not knowing that Nicholson has a mole of his own in the State Police, namely Matt Damon. There are various twists and turns...the two moles try to identify each other, and people on both sides get iced.
The film largely builds itself around four or five big scenes from Infernal Affairs, modified to suit the change of location...but whereas, in Infernal Affairs, we got to the first big bit of business within twenty minutes or so, in Scorsese's pic we don't get to that stuff for practically a hour. And even then, the emphasis is completely wrong. In both films, the sequence is about an evil transaction (dope-dealing in Infernal Affairs, microchip-selling in Departed) that's being monitored by the cops; the mob mole realizes that the cops have a mole in the mob, and he very nearly figures out who the cop mole is. In Infernal Affairs, the focus is almost entirely on suspense...will the good guy get caught, or what? The drug deal is almost secondary, and really, we don't care too much about that...the dope's just a macguffin. So are the microchips in The Departed, of course...although Scorsese and Monahan don't seem to realize that. The stuff about Dicaprio being exposed recedes into the background...we get a lot of stupid crap about Red Chinese functionaries bringing machine guns to the deal (it's like something from a Bond movie), and Jack Nicholson posturing and cutting up. In Infernal Affairs, Eric's Tsang's relatively low-key performance as the crime boss is properly subordinated to the rest of the story; in The Departed, Nicholson is pretty entertaining, but believable he ain't. He's constantly mugging, arching his devilish eyebrows, or sticking his teeth out pretending to be a rat...he's given way too much screentime, and he gets steadily more ridiculous as the film goes on, until he's finally bumped off...at which point the movie, sticking rather closer to its source material, gets a whole lot better.
But boy, do we have to wade through a lot of boring structurally useless stuff before we get to that point. There's a bunch of extraneous violence that serves no narrative purpose...you know me, I like violence, but in The Departed, you get the impression that Scorsese threw it in because he just didn't know how to propel the movie otherwise. Then there's the godawful love interest, Vera Farmiga, a police psychiatrist who just happens to get involved with both Damon and DiCaprio. Every time the film threatens to build up a real head of steam, it's almost as if Scorsese or Monahan said to themselves, "Can't have that! Let's bring that woman back in!" She's ill-defined and hopelessly annoying, and whenever she's onscreen, we get endless longeuers with Damon or DiCaprio and her exchanging lousy diaologue about vulnerabilities being revealed and whatnot. Pure root-canal stuff. In Infernal Affairs, the good guy and the bad guy had their own respective girlfriends, but we didn't spend eternities with them.
But there's all sorts of other irrelevant crapola, characters who are introduced and go nowhere, meditations on clerical child abuse, daddy issues, the aftermath of a night of Matt Damon impotence, banter about homos, wandering monologues by Jack Nicholson where you really can't follow the thread...the dialogue is plainly supposed to be nifty gangster-and-cop tough-talk, but it's frequently stilted and downright tortured. There are numerous soulful Oscar clips...the adaptation is absolutely chunky with bits of business retained from the original, bur serving no purpose at all in their new context. One has plenty of chances to wonder if Dicaprio is ever going to look like a grownup, or at least a teen-ager.
That being said, he's pretty good in the movie...so's Matt Damon, and Martin Sheen, and Ray Winstone. Marky Mark Wahlberg, in a role that wasn't in IA, should be singled out for particular commendation. But they all have to play second fiddle to Jack Nicholson, and he lays waste to much of the film...it's rather like one of Marlon Brando's more out-of-control perforances. I was reminded of The Missouri Breaks, and hey, Nicholson was in that one too...maybe it's not a coincidence.
Then, of course, there's Ms. Farmiga, and she's right out.
Now, I guess you must've twigged it that I think Infernal Affairs is vastly superior to the remake, and I won't apologize. When The Departed came out, the critics were most patronizing about IA, but most critics are silly herd animals who should be butchered and eaten by artists. Just consider the runtimes of the respective films. Infernal Affairs is a tight, trim, ninety-seven minutes long, while The Departed is two and a half hours, and almost all the additional material is gas, flab, or both. IA sticks relentlessly to the point. It's hard for me to judge the dialogue from the subtitles, but the story and characterizations stand right the hell out. The direction, by former cinematographer Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, might not be brilliant, but it's all business. Just about everything is effective, but properly subordinated. The focus is primarily on our two moles, just where it should be. And the mob mole, played by Andy Lau (not to be confused with Andrew), is a much more interesting character than Matt Damon's guy, who's a fairly black-and-white vile person, and a limpdick to boot...Lau's character has come to detest working for the bad guys...his motivations in a bunch of the scenes are a whole lot more complex...the climactic action has a whole different vibe to it, and is much more suspenseful. The only way in which The Departed streamlines the story is quite undesirable, and really dumbs the whole movie down. Upon seeing the remake, Andy Lau had quite a bit to say about the way in which his character was mangled, and he was right to be pissed off.
His opposite number, by the way, Tony Leung Chiu Wai in the Dicaprio role, is also very good, as is Anthony Wong in the Martin Sheen part. Of course, Anthony Wong is always good. When you see Tai Seng video coming attractions, he's invariably referred to as "the great Anthony Wong"...I call him that too, every chance I get. I hope we don't have a war with China, because then I wouldn't get to see any more Anthony Wong films...unless we're under military occupation, maybe, and I don't think I'd be able to enjoy them then.
The guys who made Infernal Affairs, Media Asia, had a biggish piece of The Departed, and I bet they were pretty happy with the box office for the most part. As for Scorsese, I think it was his biggest hit, although I might be mistaken about that. It did win all those Oscars, which was just ludicrous. I mean, basically, Scorsese was getting them for his much better movies...which is to say, The Departed won because Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas for Best Picture...
I don't watch the Oscars any more.