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Departed and betrayed

Why Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" does not live up to its model, the Hong Kong production "Infernal Affairs." By Ekkehard Knörer

Martin Scorsese's film "The Departed" is the story of two cops as mirror-image doppelgangers. The one, William Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio), works as an informer in a Mafia organisation. The other, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), works as a policeman and informs to the Mafia. Soon they find out about one another, without crossing each other's paths. Rather than highlighting the ethical difference in this double portrait, the film looks at the similarities binding the two. Father figures on both sides: the gangster Costello (Jack Nicholson), and the policeman (Martin Sheen). The informants have similar communication methods, sending information over cell phones. Both are under extreme pressure. One is hooked on medication, the other can't get an erection. And they fall in love with the same woman, police psychologist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga).

Vera Farmiga and Matt Damon. © 2006 Warner Bros. Ent.

"The Departed" is a doppelganger itself, a remake. It is based on the Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs" by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. No less spectacularly cast than Scorsese's version, it features Tony Leung and Andy Lau, Eric Tsang and Anthony Wong. All four usually carry the film by themselves as stars. "Infernal Affairs" was a huge success at home, and one of the few internationally acclaimed Hong Kong productions in recent years. "The Departed" remains close to the original in its rough outline as well as in many details. One example: at the end of the film a corpse lies half inside an elevator. The doors can't close, shutting half-way and opening again. The motif is the same in both films, shot from a different angle. Yet Martin Scorsese maintains he didn't even see the original before shooting his own film.

Andy Lau und Tony Leung Chiu Wai in "Infernal Affairs". © Andrew Lau Wai-Keung

One may find that hard to believe, bearing in mind that as everyone knows, Scorsese is obsessed with the cinema. He knows the history of his art right down to the last detail. And his films demonstrate the assurance of one who has seen it all. These aren't the works of a classicist who has every element of his film leap over Ockham's razor so that everything that remains fulfils the function of the film as a whole. That is much more the style of Clint Eastwood, who comes from genre film and learned from his master Don Siegel to look for the simple solution and go the straight path, aiming for full effect without tricks or embellishment.

Leonardo di Caprio. © 2006 Warner Bros. Ent.

Yet Martin Scorsese also comes from genre film, starting as an apprentice in Roger Corman's B-movie factory. Corman was motivated by money, not art. Scorsese may have learned his trade here, but not his art. As an artist, he seeks to do more than just tell stories or fulfil genre rules. From this starting point, Scorsese's cinema has implacably advanced to sheer overflowing virtuosity. But "The Departed" demonstrates that the remake of genre material cannot succeed under these conditions.

Hong Kong cinema had its heyday from the late 70s to the early 90s. Certainly, the major directors of this epoch, from Tsui Hark (filmography) to John Woo, learned much from Hollywood. But they gave action cinema more than one new twist. In highly virtuoso flights of creativity, they sometimes sped up, sometimes radically slowed down their choreographies of movement and violence. The result was a kinetics the likes of which the cinema had never seen. Production conditions were entirely different than in Hollywood. Using only rudimentary scripts, the best films created madcap spectacles with a fraction of the time and money that is the norm in Hollywood. What counted was atmosphere and editing, crossfire and fountains of blood, not plausible plots or profound psychology.

Andy Lau und Tony Leung Chiu Wai in "Infernal Affairs". © Andrew Lau Wai-Keung

While the muscle-bound American action heroes of the 80s went about flattening their enemies with all manner of heavy equipment, the Hong Kong stars did a fast-paced, elegant dance through fantastic halls of mirrors. But after around ten years the steam ran out, and exaggeration and repetition took over. In the middle of the 90s, coinciding with the return of the crown colony to China, the demise of Hong Kong action cinema became apparent for all to see. Star directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark went to Hollywood and made peculiar, often unconvincing hybrids, demonstrating above all that worlds lay between the action aesthetics of Hong Kong and Hollywood. Blending the two didn't help, they still remained miles apart.

"Infernal Affairs" doesn't reinvent Hong Kong genre cinema. The film is aesthetically far less innovative than the best works of Johnnie To ("The Mission", "PTU"), the last remaining master director of the former crown colony. "Infernal Affairs" is a decidedly calmed-down version of earlier high-frequency dramas. But it does embody many of the virtues of the Hong Kong tradition, like for example a clever narrative economy. The initial situation is established using minimum dialogue and shots, with snappy cuts and cross fades. Scorsese spends entire minutes demonising his gangster figure, with dark silhouettes of Jack Nicholson's face and body – fully redundant considering the actor. Lau and Mak, by contrast, highlight their actor Eric Tsang's shifty rotundness. That pays off: gangster boss Sam remains unsettlingly unpredictable.

Jack Nicholson. © 2006 Warner Bros. Ent.

Nicholson, by contrast, lays it on thick, time and again. The parallel sequences in which the inverse situations of the two policemen are established flip by quickly, without a hint of inspiration. Scorsese's cameraman Michael Ballhaus is eternally taken up with panning in on the actors, along rows of policemen and around their faces. This movement leads to nothing other a continual interruption from one cut to the next. The effortless fluidity of the original is replaced by a do-or-die restlessness. While "Infernal Affairs" combines one twist after the next in lightning tempo, "The Departed" puts a tremendous amount of energy into treading water. The first film speeds excitedly from one new development to the next, while in "The Departed," viewers are more than once torn from the context of suspense, left to fall back in their seats and listen to the psycho-junk dialogue of scriptwriter William Monahan.

The German synchronisation has a very hard time coming up with ever new variations for the ubiquitous English "fucking". Even in the English version it sounds exaggerated and far from any linguistic reality. But in the cinema as in literature, dialogues don't have to sound real to be good. That is amply demonstrated by TV series like "Deadwood" and "The Wire," whose artful dialogues beat everything Hollywood has to offer. The problem with "The Departed" is not in the artificiality of the dialogue, but rather in the fact that the screenplay and direction simply couldn't decide whether they wanted to make a genre film or a psychodrama.

Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon. © 2006 Warner Bros. Ent.

The result is that hardboiled gangster clichés and wounded souls crisscross pell-mell at all levels of the film. The swearing tirades and bad-cop attitude of policeman Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) come across as laughable or comical, but never as serious. The context, yes even the film in which they belong is entirely different from that in which Sullivan is confronted with erection problems. "The Departed" changes abruptly from scene to scene. Sometimes the characters are rounded, sometimes flat. Sometimes they're shooting up the town, sometimes they're pouring out their souls. Between these two seemingly irresolvable poles is the film's most unlikely character, the police psychologist. She is supposed to mediate between the genre and the drama aspects, just as she mediates between the mirror image doppelgangers. This is why she has sex with both of them – and in line with the screwy logic of the film one is apt to assume she gets pregnant from both of them.

Martin Scorsese and William Monahan misjudge the possibilities of genre film. Instead of playing with its rules like the original they underestimate, they ignore them. "Infernal Affaris" lives from the finesse of its variations on the entirely familiar. Its makers rightly see the policeman – an informant for evil who nevertheless longs to be good – as the most interesting character. Situations are built up around him that put his clichés to the test. The point is not to delve deep into his psychology, but to go beyond the expectations given by the genre with feints and variations. The plot, in its glorious improbability, acts as a guarantor for the genre itself. The plot is nothing but the means to an end, and the end is the production of a minutely subtle mechanism of suspense.

Matt Damon. © 2006 Warner Bros. Ent.

But while its starting point is the same, "The Departed" seeks more than just a mechanism. The plot never stops hitting back, however, as its improbability consistently undermines all efforts at seriousness. The more the characters are developed, the more they remain caught in their own clichés, and ultimately the whole film seems like one big feature-length cliché. The dialogues are like low quality hardboiled cop literature in cinemascope. Scorcese's film only gets off the ground in the last third, when it hones in on the confrontation logic of the mirror situation, taking out one character after the next and pitting the enemy camps against each other in a high pressure dénouement. Right at the end, it adds a rat to the pack with a volte-face not present in the original. The volte-face is an ignominious betrayal of the immorality of "Infernal Affairs." The rat, by contrast, makes for a pretty irony at the end. However it doesn't suit the film, large sections of which are unfortunately missing any sense of playfulness with its plot.


The article originally appeared in German in Perlentaucher on December 22, 2006.

Ekkehard Knörer is a freelance film critic and editor of the online film magazine Jump Cut.

Translation: jab.

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