At this point in his illustrious career, it's hard to imagine Martin Scorsese accepting another filmmaker's hand-me-downs. Yet in essence, that's what's taking place with The Departed, which isn't an original screen story but rather a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film titled Infernal Affairs.
It's a shame that the majority of American moviegoers are terrified of foreign films -- the paralyzing fear of subtitles must lead the rest of the world to believe our nation's mostly comprised of illiterates -- because they're denying themselves the chance to take in some truly exceptional works. Infernal Affairs, scarcely released here theatrically although readily available on DVD, is one such example, a crackerjack cops 'n' robbers yarn in which the cops and the robbers don't always know who's who. It boasts an ingenious premise, one that's milked to its fullest potential: A lawman goes undercover and infiltrates a mob kingpin's inner circle while a mob underling simultaneously works his way up through the ranks of the police department and now finds himself in a position of power. Thus, the cops are always tipped off to the mob's activities, and the mobsters in turn are always tipped off when the police get too close. Neither informant knows the other's identity, prompting both men to feverishly work to uncover the plant on the other side of the fence.
Given that powerhouse punch of a scenario, it's perhaps not surprising that Scorsese elected to rework someone else's property while also embellishing it with his own distinctive style. Working from a script by William Monahan, Scorsese has made a picture that's more in line with such past mob morality tales as GoodFellas and Mean Streets than with his recent spate of ambitious (and Oscar-lunging) period epics like The Aviator and Gangs of New York. But while The Departed is a strong film, it's by no means a match for any of those aforementioned titles. Nor is it equal to Infernal Affairs, which wore its sleek 100-minute running time far better than this one navigates its 150-minute length.
Set in Boston, this new take casts Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello, the crime lord with the foresight to make sure that one of his protégées, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is placed in a position to be able to rise through the ranks of the Massachusetts State Police Department. Colin is eventually assigned to the special unit tasked with investigating Costello, an outfit run by the animated Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin). Ellerby trusts Colin, little suspecting that his right-hand man is actually the informant.
Meanwhile, down the hall, the paternal Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the blunt Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) are just as determined as Ellerby to nail Costello. To that end, they assign Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get his hands dirty enough to convince Costello that he's a bona fide criminal and worth adding to his band of outlaws. Having been raised on the wrong side of the tracks, Billy has no trouble fitting in, although the strain of having to lead a double life soon wears him down. He strikes up a relationship with the police department's psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga), not realizing that she's Colin's girlfriend.
In Infernal Affairs, the male leads were involved with different women, but the decision to combine them here into one character makes sense. Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan are basically mirror images of each another, meaning that it makes thematic sense to play up both the internal and external elements that unite them. Indeed, issues of identity, duplicity and deception remain constants throughout the film, and it's refreshing to find a stateside remake that for once doesn't feel the need to dumb down its philosophical musings or complex scenarios for the sake of Yank audiences.
The violence and vulgarity -- trademarks of this sort of Scorsese outing -- are pitched at operatic levels, and even taking the milieu into consideration, they occasionally verge on overkill. So, too, does the performance by Nicholson, who begins the film as a terrifying villain but winds down as a raving buffoon. As expected, he's always fun to watch, but trimming some of his footage might have better preserved his character's menace.
The younger actors do a better job maintaining the appropriate levels of intensity. DiCaprio is coiled and edgy, Damon alternates between charismatic and creepy, and Wahlberg (stealing the film) somehow turns surliness into an endearing character trait. Baldwin contributes some choice moments as the mercurial Captain Ellerby; like Wahlberg, he's blessed by being handed the lion's share of the script's best bursts of profanity. In fact, given their similarities, Wahlberg's Sergeant Dignam almost qualifies as Ellerby's own Mini-Me -- give these two guys their own film, and there's a "buddy cop" flick that would be worth seeing.
Infernal Affairs climaxes with a shocking twist, and I was curious to see if Scorsese would have the nerve to end his big-budget studio flick in an equally uncompromising manner. Well, yes and no. On one hand, the startling moment is still included, but on the other, it's tempered by a tacked-on coda that insures justice has been fully served. I don't know if this addition was intended as a sop to the studio, to the movie-going public or to Academy voters, but it neither enhances nor detracts from the compelling crime story that precedes it.