Friday, October 06, 2006

THE DEPARTED - subtle, it ain't

Why remake an already much-heralded brilliant Hong Kong thriller? Because people in the West won't read subtitles? I just don't get it. But I really wanted to give THE DEPARTED a chance because the basic concept is so cool that any chance to revisit it is a pleasure.

In this version, Leonardo di Caprio plays a young cop from a mixed-up background who is recruited by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg's characters to infiltrate the Irish mafia. No other cops know his real identity. di Caprio does well in the organisation but finds the violence and deceit are getting to him. He turns in increasing desperation to an attractive shrink and his bosses - he wants his identity back. Meanwhile, the Irish gang-leader - a sleazy mass-murderer called Costello (Jack Nicholson), has planted a mole in the State police service. That mole, played by Matt Damon, is ironically tasked with finding out who the mole in the police service is. So begins a cat and mouse game in which each side knows there is a leak and the two moles run ever decreasing circles around each other.

In this movie, Martin Scorsese stays pretty close to the plot of INFERNAL AFFAIRS but tinkers with the delicate balance of the original. He spends a lot more time on the back story of the characters and on their relationships with a shrink - a big mistake as it holds the movie up, and focuses attention on the one weak link in the acting. Scorsese also beefs up the role of Costello - the gang leader. As a result, whereas INFERNAL AFFAIRS was about two men and their relationship with each other in absentia, THE DEPARTED is really about each man's relationship with Costello.

Which brings me to my real problem with this movie. Scorsese takes a
movie that is subtle, emotionally searing and actually not that violent and transforms it into a movie loud, violent mess. And no-where is this more evident than in the characterisation of Costello - the mob boss played by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson gives the kind of performance we have come to expect over the last few decades. He verges on self-parody - almost at times playing The Joker from Batman - not least when literally bearing his teeth and trying to sniff out a rat in his organisation. The egregiousness of the movie is summed up by the fact that, when the final climactic scene reuniting the two moles occurs, we are too benumbed to be blown away by it. Indeed, the audience in the screening I attended laughed at the unintentional humour of the bombastic closing scenes. And then we have the closing shot of the movie, that literally has a rat running along a balcony. I mean, could you lay the symbolism on any heavier?

Which is not to say that this is not an accomplished movie. Scorsese is backed up by his usual high-class crew. The camera is operated by Michael Ballhaus, Thelma Schoonmaker cuts the movie. Sandy Powell does the costumes and Krista Zea does the producton design. That means we get the fluid camera-work that Scorsese is known for and some gritty Boston-looking locales. But frankly, as beautiful as this movie sometimes looks, it's no match for Christopher Doyle's work in the original. And that can be said for the acting too. Leonardo di Caprio gives a career-best performance as Billy Costigan, but it still pales in comparison with the subtlety and emotional depth that Tony Leung brought to the same role.
Matt Damon is just fine. He doesn't set the pulse racing in the way he did in RIPLEY or Andy Lau did in the original. In smaller roles, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin are given little to do. And as I said before, I have big problems with Jack Nicholson's choices. The only guy I thought was outstanding was Mark Wahlberg.

Overall, I found THE DEPARTED over long, dreary, heavy-handed and a riot where we could have had a much quiter, much more affecting movie. I was prepared to take it on its own merits and not compare it with the original - and I only wish that Scorsese had come up with a good Scorsese movie - big and loud yes, but gripping and unforgettable. Instead, we just get this over-blown mess.

THE DEPARTED opens this week in the Philppines, Malaysia, russia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, The UK and the US. It opens next week in Indonesia, Asutralia, New Zealand, Singapore, Estonia and Latvia and the week after in Italy and Spain. It opens in November in Iceland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France and Israel. It opens in Germany, Sweden and Belgium in December; in Argentina and Poland in January 2007 and in Japan in March 2007.


  1. Having recently seen "Infernal Affairs" I can't help but agree on your thoughts about it and reading this review for "The Departed" brings to fruitition my greatest fear. I'm still going off to see it tonight but my hopes have been greatly dashed.

  2. "The only guy I thought was outstanding was Mark Wahlberg."

    That's not a good sign. He's not a terrible actor but he's not great either. His brother Donnie is much better.

  3. See it and believe it, Stoogy. Marky Mark is AWESOME in this. He is way under-rated. He kicks ass in I HEART HUCKABEES too.

  4. ...whereas INFERNAL AFFAIRS was about two men and their relationship with each other in absentia...

    This is part of the problem with the film, part of the wild contrivance, in my opinion. This reminds me of Sleepless in Seattle (which I hated). I think The Departed is one of the most overrated films of the year--almost bad enough to rival last year's Crash.