Friday, October 6, 2006
Poster, The Departed
For his latest film, Martin Scorsese not only abandons the mean streets of New York for Beantown but he also turns to a Hong Kong popular crime thriller for source material. The result is The Departed (opening October 6 throughout San Diego). The film boasts Brad Pitt as one of its producers and Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg as stars.
There was a time when Martin Scorsese topped my list of filmmakers that I most wanted to interview. Films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy and New York, New York bristled with a passion and originality that put him at the forefront of filmmakers both in the U.S. and abroad. But in recent years the extraordinarily gifted filmmaker and passionate film buff has been making movies that are not up to the level of his earlier works. You have to go back to the 90s and films such as Goodfellas and Casino to find those creative fires burning brightly.
Martin Scorseses most recent feature outings have come across as blatant attempts to court Hollywood and win an Oscar (which he apparently wants), and that has made him less interesting as a filmmaker. For Gangs of New York he went for proven box office stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz) rather than actors better suited to the roles, and for The Aviator he tried to deliver a celebrity biopic that Hollywood could embrace. Both films had elements that personally resonated for him but neither had the flawless craft and brash energy of his earlier works.
With The Departed , Scorsese finds a little of his old fire. He trades in the Big Apple for South Boston where he looks to a war between the Massachusetts State Police and the mob. The police are obsessed with taking down the citys mostly Irish mob and decide that the best way to bring it down is from the top. So they decide to plant a mole inside the crime organization of kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). But that kind of undercover work requires a very special kind of cop and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) looks like the perfect candidate. He even has some family members with mob connections. His superior Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) tells him that hell have to do some time in jail in order to gain credibility on the street. Plus, to insure secrecy only Queenan and one other cop (Mark Wahlberg) in the department will know hes working undercover.
So while Costigan infiltrates the mob in order to bring it down, another young cop, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is recruited as a mole for the mob. Sullivan is a slick, fast-rising trooper whose first allegiance is to Costello. Each man must maintain a double life, hiding his true identity from those he works with. But both men are at constant risk of being exposed, and eventually both the cops and the mob realize theres a traitor in their midst.
Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed
The Departed opens with the same stylish bravado that made films such as Goodfellas so much fun to watch. As The Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter plays, Scorseses camera tracks the movements of Frank Costello (whos kept in the shadows out of both a sense of style and a need to mask the age of Nicholson who is supposed to be considerably younger in these opening scenes). Costello struts about giving out advice, words of wisdom and some brutal lessons in mob rule. Hes seductive to kids like Colin Sullivan and he knows it. Thats how he wins new recruits. When he puts money in little Colins hand and sends the boy home with a bag of groceries, he knows hes made a wise investment in the future. In these early scenes, Scorsese feels like hes back in his element strutting with the same confidence as Costello. But as the story turns more to the two young men leading double lives, Scorseses loses some of that fine sense of control and delivers a crime thriller that lacks his personal signature.
The Departed is based on the highly successful 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller called Infernal Affairs , which starred Tony Leung and Andy Lau, and was directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. The film did so well in Asia that it spawned a prequel and a sequel. Yet it only received a minimal release in the U.S. The Departeds screenwriter William Monahan says that he made an effort NOT to see Infernal Affairs , and instead worked from a translation of the Chinese script. In the press notes, Scorsese insists that his film is not a remake of the Hong Kong film. Well I dont know how he defines a remake but anyone who saw Infernal Affairs might think differently because in addition to the basic storyline thats lifted for The Departed there are other elements taken directly from the Hong Kong originalbits of business involving cell phones, elevators, a meet in a porn theater, rooftop encounters and more. Monahan and Scorsese lift these elements and tweak them yet they dont make them better or fully their own.
Monahan hails from Boston, which explains why he wanted to set the story their. But Scorsese never connects to the city the way he has with his home turf of New York. Similarly, we are constantly being reminded of the Irishness of the characters and the characteristics of being Irish yet a cultural flavor never flows through the film the way being Italian in New York came through in Scorseses early films. Plus, Damon and DiCaprio never sell me on their ethnicity. In fact DiCaprio and Nicholson have a little trouble selling me on the fact that theyre supposed to be from Boston. All this leads me to saying something that I never thought Id say: when it comes to this particular story. Scorseses been outdone by his Hong Kong counterparts. Scorseses The Departed doesnt improve in any way on Infernal Affairs , which served up a return to stylish Hong Kong action. Quit simply, Infernal Affairs delivered the goods, while The Departed just makes a partial shipment.
Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon in The Departed
Scorseses films have often been obsessed with notions of guilt and redemption, and this story of The Departed would seem to offer fertile ground to further explore these ideas. But Monahans script doesnt provide Scorsese with that kind of material. What Monahan is good at is writing some crackling dialogue (Mark Wahlbergs acid tongued cop gets most of the best lines with Jack coming in a close second). But hes less skilled at creating suspense and a narrative arc. We dont feel the mounting tension as sharply as we should, or the tragic irony of how the lives of these two young men play out. In the press materials, Monahan states my adaptation, thematically, is all about the engine of tragedy that is started when people depart from what they really should be doing with their lives. But that doesnt really come through.
Although it may not be fair to keep comparing The Departed to Infernal Affairs , doing a remake (and sorry Marty but your film is a remake) invites such comparisons. The original film set up the parallel lives of these two characters more efficiently and with more sly connections. And from very early on we felt a high level of tension as each tried to maintain his mole status. As actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon simply cant hold a candle to Tony Leung and Andy Lau. Leung is an especially gifted actor with eyes that reveal far more than dialogue ever could and he endowed Infernal Affairs with a true sense of the tragic. Unlike DiCaprios Costigan, who seems to crack up early on and who never seems to provide any helpful tips to his superiors, Leungs character cracks up after being undercover fro 10 years and after actually providing information that led to confiscating drugs. The tragedy in their case was from how notions of honor and loyalty played out. Plus theres a female psychiatrist in both films but shes far more interesting and less clichd in Infernal Affairs. In The Departed, she becomes part of a love triangle with the two men that plays out with conventional morality and emotions.
The Departed (rated R for violence and language) returns Scorsese to better form and he delivers his best film in years. Yet if this were the first film he had made, it never would have generated the level of excitement that Mean Streets did. Although I would never want to restrict Scorsese to particular material, he might benefit from heading back to New York and actors like DeNiro and Keitel to tell a story thats closer to home to renew his creative energy. Or maybe he should focus on documentaries because his best work recently has been the non-fiction TV projects about film history and Bob Dylan. So please Marty, forget about winning an Oscar (something that has eluded some of our greatest filmmakers), turn your back on Hollywood, and lets see what you can really do. If the senior citizens of the French New Wave can still crank out fresh and vital new work, so too should our aging American New Wave directors.
Companion viewing: Infernal Affairs (you can also sample II and III ), John Woos Hard-Boiled, Goodfellas