The Movie Review: 'The Departed'

"I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me," Jack Nicholson intones at the beginning of The Departed. "No one gives it to you. You have to take it." In theory, he's talking about the rise of the Irish in America generally and Boston in particular; in practice, he's talking about himself, offering up a "My Way"-like tribute to his own success.

And whether or not anyone intended to give it to him, Nicholson does indeed take The Departed. A remake of the sleek, superb 2002 Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs, the movie has been Nicholsonized across the board, becoming fatter, coarser, and more self-indulgent than the original. The credit is not Jack's exclusively, but is shared by Martin Scorsese--who, for his troubles, is a favorite to take home his first Best Director award at the Oscars this coming weekend. If he does in fact win, it'll be a tad ridiculous. Because not only is The Departed not among the best of Scorsese's films; it's not even the best version of this film.

Infernal Affairs (which I reviewed here) and The Departed both tell a tale of twinned pretenders: an undercover policeman who has infiltrated the mob (Tony Leung in the former; Leonardo DiCaprio in the latter) and a mobster working as a mole within the police department (Andy Lau and Matt Damon, respectively). Each of them answers to an apparent boss and a secret one, and these bosses are the same two men (though with roles reversed): a likable police chief (Anthony Wong, Martin Sheen) and a villainous kingpin (Eric Tsang, Nicholson). The symmetry of the plot is contrived but cunning, and both films have the good sense to play it straight, without a lot of windy philosophizing about the neatly balanced deceptions or the nature of identity.

Where the films will diverge is made clear in the opening minutes. Infernal Affairs introduces its protagonists with a brisk montage that conveys how each established himself undercover. The Departed follows a similar but twistier path, pausing to offer such delicacies as a scene in which Nicholson lecherously asks a teenage girl whether she's gotten her period (and then, inaudibly, whispers something that is presumably worse), some banter about blowjobs, a vicious but comic execution, an explanation of the massive tissue damage caused by hollow-point slugs, and a police-fire department rugby match that serves primarily as an excuse for the opponents to call one another "homos." Now, I'm not averse to sex or brutality in cinema, and I have a considerable soft spot for well-deployed profanity. But it is rather disappointing that, even though The Departed is nearly an hour longer than Infernal Affairs, violence and vulgarity form the bulk of what Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan have added. According to the Internet Movie Database, the word "fuck" and its derivatives are spoken 237 times in the movie, or about once every 38 seconds for two and a half hours.

The early suggestion that this will be a story about the rise and fall of the Irish mob in Boston--a Celtic Goodfellas--is an unfulfilled promise: There are a couple of references to rivalries with the (Italian) mob in Providence and the revelation that Nicholson's criminal overlord is also an FBI informant (shades of Whitey Bulger) but neither theme is explored. Indeed, the film's setting seems largely an excuse to give DiCaprio that bane of narrative economy, a "backstory." (Raised by a working-class, Southie dad and a relatively upscale mom; accustomed to living in two worlds; yadda yadda yadda.)

Scorsese's other additions are similarly questionable. In addition to Sheen's fatherly police captain, he's added two more top cops (Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg), apparently to increase the opportunity for intradepartmental fisticuffs and name-calling. (I will grant this: Wahlberg has a knack for obscene invective perhaps unequalled in film today; certainly no one else has ever ridden so many "fucking faggot"'s to an Oscar nomination.) Scorsese's most dubious departure from Infernal Affairs is to compress two girlfriends (one for each protagonist) into one shared between the two moles, a police psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) who lives with Damon but sleeps with her patient DiCaprio. Farmiga is a promising newcomer in a film full of A-listers, but her character is frankly ridiculous. (Her precoital admission to DiCaprio--"I have to say your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now"--is surely the worst line in the movie.) Moreover, having the crisscrossing imposters both bed the same woman is one symmetry too many in a movie already groaning under the weight of coincidence.

It's true that Scorsese's added material does give The Departed a certain messy heft and richness of texture relative to the leaner, cleaner Infernal Affairs. But it also tends to crowd out the quieter, meditative elements. In particular, while Scorsese faithfully recreates almost every scene in the original, he omits perhaps its most touching moment, when Leung, the undercover cop, runs into an old girlfriend and her daughter on the street, and we're subtly given to understand both that she left him because she believed him to be a real criminal, and that the daughter is, in fact, his. It's a scene that better captures what his job has cost him than all the agonized brow-furrowing, pill-popping, and fighting with superiors in which DiCaprio indulges to convey the same idea.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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