This weekend the theaters are full of fans going back for more of director Martin Scorsese and his muse, Leonardo DiCaprio, in Shutter Island. Scorsese and DiCaprio have worked together in Gangs of New York, The Aviator and, most recently and successfully, The Departed, the mesmerizing tale of undercover cops and organized crime infiltration of the police force.
That last time out for the director/actor duo, their film took home four Oscar statuettes — including ones for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best-Adapted Screenplay. Adapted from what you may ask? From another movie. Departed came to American screens after Hollywood started buzzing about the 2002 hit Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Affairs is no stranger to awards though, as it claimed seven Hong Kong Film Awards of its own — including ones for Best Actor (Tony Leung), Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. Even though both films were clever enough to win the major “Best Picture” prize in their respective country of release, a probing question remains — did the The Departed team produce a better overall film than Infernal Affairs?
Departed centers on an undercover Boston police officer, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who infiltrates the underground world of Irish mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in an attempt to bring him down once and for all. The Boston police department has a similar infestation problem because one of their treasured own, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is actually a mole for Costello. The real fun begins when each side discovers that they have a mole in their inner circle and they scramble to find out who it is. The story is finally resolved in a dramatic rooftop scene where both moles confront each other in a final standoff laden with inventive twists and a fair amount of bloodshed.
The Defending Champion
Affairs features Tony Leung as Yan, an undercover cop who infiltrates the Chinese mafia, and Andy Lau as Inspector Ming, a Chinese Mafia abettor who imbeds himself in the police force. The thrill ride begins when both moles try to crack the other’s identity while maintaining their own cover. Hmmm… sounds familiar, huh? Topping off this all-star cast, another Hong Kong powerhouse, Eric Tsang plays the rotund Mafia boss and Anthony Wong echoes in as the sympathetic police superintendent.
Although Departed borrows the bulk of its plot from its Chinese counterpart, it does weigh in with some useful fresh content of its own. Departed does an excellent job of filling in some of the missing story elements of Affairs. Scorsese’s film offers a more thorough look at the evolution of DiCaprio’s character as he grows into the Costello mob family. Departed does the same for Damon’s character showing his quick rise through the police department despite ruffling a few feathers along the way, most notably those of fellow officer Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) — a character not present in Affairs and used effectively for comic relief and exposition in Departed. In true Hollywood fashion, Departed also throws both moles into a love triangle creating more fodder for conflict. The mob boss character was also made an FBI informant in Departed, a motivating detail not referenced in Affairs.
Though these additions to Departed did fill out the story more, some important elements from Affairs were curiously removed — such as as the scene where the police crew and the Mafia crew are sitting in the interrogation room immediately after they have just learned that each has a mole. As the Mafia boss and the police superintendent scan the room trying to get a clue as to who the mole might be, the scene effortlessly shifts from comical to tense all the while illustrating to the audience how faceless and destructive these moles actually are — creating more of a sense of urgency to uncover their indentities. Additionally, in the final scene in Affairs, the only person that knows the true identity of the undercover cop is Lau, the other mole. This minor detail makes the circumstances that much greater for both characters during the climatic rooftop scene. In Departed, we know that the Wahlberg character is still running around somewhere with this insider knowledge, making the desperate rooftop scene a little less…well, desperate.
Was the Scorsese, DiCaprio, Damon combo enough to make an already great movie even better? Or did it only seem Oscar-worthy because Americans hate sub-titles?
First, I do have to give credit to The Departed for only borrowing about ninety percent of the Infernal Affairs storyline and trying to pump up the remainder. However, the additional pumping added about fifty minutes to the run time of the film causing it to lull in spots. Affairs ran at a taut 101 minutes and was still able to build a much stronger connection between Lau and Leung’s characters and the audience. Even though all actors in both films delivered superb performances, Lau sold his anguish and his struggle between the good side and the bad side better than Damon. This was important because it left the audience feeling for both characters during the crucial standoff and made the stakes higher for our heroes.
The elements unique to The Departed did give the story a more “complete” feel, but the elements unique to Infernal Affairs gave the story more heart and depth. Explicitly showing everything in a film does not necessarily make it a better film. Sometimes audiences like to use more than just their eyes. Though both are excellent films in their own right, Infernal Affairs is my choice… by a hair.