As far as remakes go, The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, overstuffed Boston-area reinterpretation of Andy Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs, is by no means an embarrassment. Packed with likable actors delivering quality performances (another hambone turn by Jack Nicholson notwithstanding), it’s a breezy and enjoyable two and a half hours of cinema, and it hits most of the beats of the original decently well. (Maybe too well. A little more deviation from IA might’ve helped in the suspense department.) Still, I left the theater somewhat disappointed, and am a bit surprised by the critical acclaim Departed is getting. For all the sleek direction, actorly firepower, and Mamet-ish wit on display here can’t disguise the fact that Infernal Affairs was a clearly better film — leaner and more nuanced, more elegiac and resonant. Lacking the emotional power of the original, The Departed basically just feels like a well-crafted but hollow genre exercise (that is, when it doesn’t feel like a Nicholson stunt.) And, as far as well-crafted genre exercises go, I think I might’ve preferred Inside Man.
The central plot of both films is at once delightfully simple — cop plays robber, robber plays cop — and devilishly complicated. Here, two Southie graduates of the Massachusetts State Police Academy go to work for opposite sides of the law: Bright young overachiever Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) takes a gig in a top police investigation unit aimed at taking down nefarious crime kingpin Frank Costello (a.k.a. Whitey Bulger a.k.a. The Joker), while troubled screw-up Billy Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) finds himself, after a stint in the joint, hired muscle in Costello’s organization. But all is not as it seems: As it turns out, Sullivan the cop — bought off by a bag of groceries a few decades earlier — actually works for Costello as a mole on the force, while Costigan the robber has gone deep undercover at the behest of BPD detectives Queenan (Martin Sheen, avuncular and presidential) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg, aggro and amusing). As it becomes patently clear to both sides of the game that each has a rat in the house, Sullivan and Costello work to flush out their opposite before they get busted (or, in Costello’s case, dismembered.) And, complicating the situation even further (and in a departure from Infernal Affairs), these two nemeses also unknowingly share the love of the same woman, an alluring police shrink (Vera Farmiga) who tends to make really poor life decisions.
All of this is executed competently enough. Scorsese keeps the wheels turning and the tension up throughout, and The Departed benefits from many excellent performances around the margins: Both Wahlberg (easily the most comfortable with the Boston accent, for obvious reasons) and particularly Alec Baldwin (as a grizzled police detective, one-half his character in Glengarry Glen Ross, one-half Sgt. Jay Landsman) are laugh-out loud funny at times, while David O’Hara and Sexy Beast‘s Ray Winstone add sinister depths to Costello’s criminal outfit. And, while most of Mystic River felt more plausible to me, the Boston locale gives The Departed some strong local color that feels fresh and different from the Hong Kong of Internal Affairs. (I particularly liked some of the Irish witticisms. I’d never heard the Freud quote: “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” And I enjoyed Sullivan’s warning to his psychiatrist girlfriend late in the film, something along the lines of “If this isn’t working, you need to get out. I’m Irish. Something could be wrong, and I’d spend the rest of my life just dealing with it.“)
Both Leonardo di Caprio and Matt Damon do high-quality work too, but here some of my issues with the film emerge. As played by the charismatic Tony Leung of Hero, In the Mood for Love, and 2046, the undercover cop character in Internal Affairs is a resigned, world-weary sort, a guy who seems to carry reservoirs of inexpressible sorrow with him everywhere he goes. But, here, di Caprio is basically a pill-popping panic attack for two hours, cringing and sweating his way through every scene. Fine, that’s a stylistic choice: More problematic is Damon’s character, who’s become considerably less interesting than the conflicted cop played by Andy Lau (of House of Flying Daggers) in the original. For some reason, he’s been stripped down and rendered a much more conventional villain. Damon does what he can, but I preferred the subtler, more pained motivations of Lau’s mole than I do the unctuous, take-no-prisoners careerism they’ve saddled Damon with here.
And then there’s Jack. Nicholson has put in some extraordinary performances in his time, but, as someone put it in another comment thread, he’s been coasting like Pacino for a couple of decades now. And, for some ungodly reason, Scorsese gave Nicholson free rein here to act as crazy as he wants. (Yep, the dildo idea was his.) As a result, Nicholson can’t stop leering and preening to the point of distraction. Whether it be making rat faces, covering his arms in splatterhouse gore, coking out with two prostitutes in the Red Room from Twin Peaks, or generally just acting like he’s seated courtside at the Staples Center rather than running a crime operation, Nicholson just doesn’t work here. Wildly over the top throughout, he’s like a refugee from a sillier, stupider film, and he too often makes The Departed feel little more than a Marty-directs-Jack! casting stunt.