"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.
But the most problematic change from original to remake is the casting of Nicholson, whose outsized persona infects the entire movie. Tsang's mob boss in Infernal Affairs was just that: an inflated hood, a bully who'd risen to the top of his profession. But that's far too pedestrian a challenge for Nicholson, whose career has for many years now alternated between paying homage to his own legend as a charming-but-dangerous satyr (Something's Gotta Give, Anger Management, Wolf) and astonishing critics by playing its exact opposite (About Schmidt, The Pledge, As Good As It Gets). In The Departed, he follows the former course, imagining his Irish mobster as a Joker sans clownface, a Kingpin of Eastwick. The ancient tropes are all there: the grinning megalomania, the adolescent witticisms, the sexual bravado--and, of course, the marionette eyebrow he uses to tell us he's in on the joke and thus can't possibly be the joke. (He's wrong.)
Nicholson's overweening self-image flattens everything in its path. In his last film, the atrocious romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give, his ladies' man character treated us to his bare ass and simulated cunnilingus on an ice cream cone. In this one, he shows up to a clandestine meeting with a large dildo and feigns masturbation. Why? Because he's Jack, silly. He even persuaded Scorsese to film an explicit sex scene featuring him with two prostitutes, though--merciful God--only a few seconds made the final cut. (Even those, in which he pours fistfuls of cocaine on an unseen playmate, seem to have been included for his benefit rather than ours; the shot is so fleeting it barely tracks at all.) Never you worry, though: While we may be spared the sight of Nicholson's nakedness, his cinematic alter ego still inflicts upon us the knowledge that "it's always been so easy for me to get cunt that I've never understood jacking off in a theater." Thanks for sharing, Jack. I'm sure that there is something in this world more distasteful than listening to a 70-year-man boast about all the hot young tail he's getting; I'm just not sure what it might be.
Which is a pity. Because, Nicholson's sexual theatrics aside, The Departed is a highly entertaining movie--just not a great one. If it doesn't have much to add to Infernal Affairs, that is in part because Infernal Affairs didn't need much added. (I suspect this is a typical instance where people will generally prefer whichever of the two films they saw first.) And if Scorsese's direction draws a little deeply from his work on Goodfellas and Casino--"Gimme Shelter," which he used on both previous soundtracks, is used twice here--well, those were awfully good movies.
But a high-quality knockoff is still a knockoff. Whether one prefers Infernal Affairs or The Departed, the latter stands on the former's shoulders. Indeed, the only reason the remake could be made a scant four years after the original was that Infernal Affairs made the fundamental mistake, common among foreign films, of being in a foreign language. So, box office success for The Departed? Yes, by all means, especially in a year as lean as the last. But an Oscar for picture or director? Please. Martin Scorsese is not so in need of charity.
What he--and screenwriter Monahan--do seem to be in need of is a little more graciousness toward their Hong Kong predecessors. Back when The Departed was in the early stages of production, a magazine asked me to write a short article about remakes set in Boston. The piece never quite panned out, in part because during the course of my reporting, Monahan (through an agent) explained that neither he nor "Marty" considered The Departed to be a remake. It's an absurd assertion: The film is not only a remake but an unusually loyal one that, apart from the noted alterations, follows the original twist for twist.
This effort to distance The Departed from its source material appears to have continued. In the film's closings credits, we first get an outsized "Directed by Martin Scorsese," followed by an equally huge "Screenplay by William Monahan." Then the stars and producers are credited, followed by a second reminder that this was "A Martin Scorsese Picture." Then we see a full cast list, the unit production manager, second assistant director, entire stunt crew, et cetera. Only those willing to sit through three full minutes will finally be informed, in modest type, that the movie they've just watched was "Based on the motion picture Infernal Affairs, Directed by Andrew Lau Wai Keung/Alan Mak. Screenplay by Alan Mak/Felix Chong." It's as if the creators of The Departed were trying to conceal from the audience that their film was, in fact, a remake. And, considering how little they had to add to the original, one can hardly blame them.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.
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