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This is a question posed to Andy Lau’s character, by his live-in girlfriend, in the brilliant Cantonese film Infernal Affairs. She is a writer plodding through the plot of her new novel, which eerily mirrors the double life lived by her significant other. A small detail like this helped create characters that live and breathe with a history behind them. Unfortunately, while adding almost an hour of length, Martin Scorsese’s new remake, The Departed, fails to make the audience feel for the protagonists, as we never really know who they are. While this is a crutch making it an inferior re-envisioning, (what remake is better than its predecessor anyways?), The Departed still thrills and entertains with the best of them. I’m sure if I hadn’t seen Infernal Affairs I’d be proclaiming masterpiece along with the throngs of moviegoers of late. However, I have seen both, and even great films can still be inferior copies.

I had heard somewhere that Scorsese is a huge Asian-made film fan, causing him to decide to direct his first remake of already existing material. Upon hearing this news I have to admit I shuddered a bit; one of the greatest filmmakers who has ever lived was selling-out. I had to give him the benefit of the doubt however, and tell myself that Infernal Affairs must be superb for him to want to bring it to American audiences. With this I would usually argue the fact that we in the US are intelligent enough; just release the original with subtitles. I will refrain from that observation here, as during the one moment of Chinese in The Departed, there were numerous laughs from the crowd as it must be hilarious to hear someone speak a foreign language. I know I had a real tough time composing myself…right. Unfortunately for America, we aren’t ready for the international world, fortunately for Scorsese, he chose not to do the “new-vision film” but retain pretty much scene for scene what made the original the success it was. Kudos to Marty for sticking to what he loved about it and putting his own flair in to do homage to something he held adoration to.

The jist of the story goes as follows: One man has been turned onto the mob and asked to go undercover by joining the police academy to help all illegal doings go off risk-free. Another man has done so well in cadet school that he is approached to do a dangerous mission of infiltrating the mob, being a mole to help bring down an illustrious mob-boss. What works so well in Infernal Affairs is the fact that these two men have started on their paths at a very young age, wanting to be in the mob/police respectively and becoming the opposite at around 18 years of age. These men cross paths in the academy and 10-15 years later, we see their lives evolve and begin to care for both characters. In the American version there is a dumbing down of back-story in order for the conflict to start as soon as it possibly can. It works in so far as Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio being young and driven for a fast rise in their fields. As a result, though, we see a comparison of them being boys to the men played with real emotional resonance by Lau and the incomparable Tony Leung. These two are just so good that their English-speaking counterparts could never live up to them, and as a result I commend Marty for not trying to have them. Leung and Lau have been leading two lives for almost two decades of their adulthood, their troubles are etched to their faces for the world to see. The cop has become criminal and the criminal has become cop.

Both films are feats to behold, but of course there are always points of contention between movies from the same source material. One thing, and probably the only thing, that succeeded better in the remake is the role of mob-boss Frank Costello. Much of this is credit to the over-the-top performance by Jack Nicholson. The man is a god among actors and his facial expressions and delivery of the comical/poignant/serious dialogue is spot-on. Being a role that was mostly background plot-forwarding in the original, letting him really drive the film was a success. Of course it was a necessity, as Marty knew Damon and Leo couldn’t carry the emotional weight of the film on their shoulders alone like their Chinese counterparts. Also, major props go to screenwriter William Monagan for creating some beautiful deflection in the final elevator scene of the movie, as anyone who has viewed the original film will be thinking they know what will happen when the door opens, but be wrong. It was very satisfying to myself as I was thinking in my head, oh it’s going to play out the same, yet in fact still got to enjoy the sense of surprise with the other audience members experiencing it for the first time.

What the remake did wrong was making the girlfriends of our protagonists into the same person, adding a love triangle, which was unnecessary and distracting. Whereas the original showed us a sensitive side to these duplicitous characters, the remake wants to add tension by contrasting the two men instead of showing them as similar, if not the same. With no illwill to Vera Farmiga who does a great job here, she is contrived and used to separate the two men from each other, to make us, as the audience, choose a favorite. The beauty of the first film is that both men have their moments of good and bad, and we relate to their hardships as a result. Also, leave it to Hollywood, USA (probably the most prudish nation on earth) to want to inject a thriller with unnecessary sex scenes and then not have the guts to show anything even though the film is R. If the nudity is integral to the plot, don’t copout and only allude to it. The movie theater encounter didn’t need to be at a porn house, and the camera didn’t need to show the screen while carefully cropping anything offensive out of frame. I am hoping the producers asked for the addition to appease the male audience and not Scorsese thinking we needed the titillation to fully enjoy the film. To expand on what is wrong with Hollywood some more, having every single role played by a name actor doesn’t make the film better. Instead it just wastes the talent of great actors like Anthony Anderson, Ray Winstone, and Alec Baldwin. While Baldwin uses what little time he has to have maybe the best performance of the film, (very Glengarry Glen Ross-ish), the other roles are acted well, but under-utilized; you want more from them.

The use of morse code, path-crossing, and trust issues for their father figures (mob-boss and police chief) really make every event that transpires suspenseful and edge-of-your-seat exciting in Infernal Affairs. The Departed becomes over-blown and bloated at times, using cell phones and computers as a means of communicating without going far enough to use methods that can’t be tracked easily. There is a lack of danger, almost, as the cops and mobsters play a game where life is expendable. The original held life in high respect and as a result made every moment important and serious. Stakes just aren’t as high when no one seems to have a strong relationship with those around them. Mark Wahlberg seems to be the only one who really cares for the men he risks his life with. The smartass comments and brilliant sarcasm is what he does best, (this is probably my second favorite role of his behind I Heart Huckabees), and while I disagree with the final use of his character in the film (a far less effective ending than the original as the death toll becomes comically extensive), he was a nice addition to the script the second time around.

So, while The Departed is one of the best films of the year thus far, being a remake inherently makes it privy to scrutinization. Do yourself a favor and see the true masterpiece it was culled from and find out that foreign films can be great. While maybe the best example of a remake I’ve seen, even Scorsese can’t improve upon a classic. He can only show his love and affection for it and pay tribute. One last jab, to counteract the praise, when a movie comes out in 2002, does it really need a retelling in 2006? I’ll forgive them this time for a job well done.

Infernal Affairs 9/10
The Departed 8/10

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photography:
[1] Andy Lau and Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs.
[2] Undercover cop Billy Costigan (LEONARDO DiCAPRIO) infiltrates the Irish mob led by Costello (JACK NICHOLSON) in Warner Bros. Pictures’ crime drama “The Departed.” Photo by Andrew Cooper
[3] Andy Lau in Infernal Affairs.
[4] Sergeant Dignam (MARK WAHLBERG) has a heated exchange with Colin Sullivan (MATT DAMON) over the identity of the mob infiltrator in Warner Bros. Pictures’ crime drama “The Departed.” Photo by Andrew Cooper

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