Monday, January 19, 2015

In with the New Blogathon: The Departed

At the top of the year, I decided to start the In with the New Blogathon. The premise is simple: tell why a remake or re-imagining is better than the original. As of the day this posts, there's a little less than a week until the deadline. Just see the handy-dandy clock at the top of the page. Feel free to join me for this little exercise. Check out my original post to find out how.

For my own entry, I'm going to go with the American remake of an already excellent Chinese film. General consensus is that us Yanks screw up the movies from other countries that we remake in our own image. This time, we got it right. Yes, boys and girls, we're talking about...

In 2002, Infernal Affairs became an international sensation and won a slew of awards. It was even submitted as Hong Kong's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards that year. Ultimately, it did not earn an Oscar nomination, but that didn't lessen it's impact on its country's cinema, helping to revitalize a stagnant industry. However, here in America it was a little seen title hidden on the shelves of the Foreign Language section in video stores that bothered to have them. A proven quality film that not many Americans have bothered with? No wonder knowledgeable people decided to remake it.

The premise of Infernal Affairs is one that takes a pair of oft-used tropes and melds them brilliantly. One is the undercover cop, the other is the dirty cop. This movie has them face off in a unique way: without even knowing it. One cop is working undercover within the triad while the other is a detective who happens to be working for the bad guys. Much of the movie consists of each guy trying to figure out the identity of the other. It's an intriguing cat-and-mouse leading to an action packed finale after 101 thrilling minutes.

As good as IA is, The Departed is better.

The starting point for the superiority of the remake is the screenplay by William Monahan which got an unexpected boost from actor Jack Nicholson. His only produced screenplay to this point was 2005's Kingdom of Heaven. For this one, he penned a version set in Boston that intrigued the film's soon to be director, Martin Scorsese. Brad Pitt was set to star, but would soon bow out in favor of the younger Matt Damon, but stayed on as a producer. With Scorsese all set, it only made sense that Leonardo DiCaprio, his latest muse, would also star. Finally, Nicholson was brought in to play the head of the gangster outfit. He liked the script, but felt it was a little too run of the mill. He wanted the film, and his character, to have more depth. Monahan went back to work and transformed a solid remake into a masterpiece.

As it shows up on the screen, the difference between The Departed and its predecessor is the insanely compelling character development to go along with what was an already excellent cop drama. To create this, Monahan decided to base Nicholson's character on real life Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and Damon's on corrupt FBI Agent John Connolly. In real life, Bulger was actually given wide-ranging freedom by the FBI in exchange for information. Monahan beautifully translates this to the screen. He also dives deep into the personal lives of his main characters and how they are all tied to each other, rounding them into people with understandable motivations and hesitations. The dialogue that carries this newfound approach absolutely sizzles. So much so, Monahan took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

A great screenplay alone, does not a movie make. Luckily, the cast performs this screenplay brilliantly. The acting in IA was excellent, netting a handful of awards for its stars Tony Leung and Andy Lau. Still, the excellence of what DiCaprio was able to do is unmatched. He truly gives us a man struggling to keep it all together. To his work are added, outstanding turns from Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, and yes, Jack Nicholson. Wahlberg earned an Oscar nominations for his efforts. DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for Best Actor while Nicholson was nominated for a GG, as well.

From the director's chair, Scorsese does what Scorsese does and pushes all the right buttons on his way to winning the Academy Award for Best Director. As the impresario of gritty, urban crime drama he's known for injecting New York City so full of life that it pumps through the veins of his characters, becoming one itself. Here, he does the same for Boston. It is not merely where the movie takes place, but a living, breathing entity integral to the telling of the story. This is aided by terrific work by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. It makes The Departed feel like it could not have taken place anywhere else. However, Scorsese's true masterstroke the work he did with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, also doing Oscar winning work, to create perfect pacing for his film. This element is the reason a 151 minute remake of a 101 minute movie goes by just as fast while simultaneously making us invest much more of ourselves in the people on the screen. It also adds extra oomph to a wild finale worthy of Shakespearian tragedy.

Don't get me wrong. Infernal Affairs is a very good movie. It's completely enjoyable from start to finish. Taken on it's own terms, it does indeed feel complete. However, The Departed shows us the possibilities that were unexplored. It's as if an already delicious shell has been cracked open to reveal a king's feast of succulent meat.


  1. I just love the departed, such a masterpiece. Great post btw, but you made a few mistakes:

    -the departed is not a remake of IA, is a remake of IA, IA 2 and IA3, that's why it runs 150 mins and a lot of scenes and situations are actually taken from IA 2 and 3, that's why the departed feels much more complete than IA.

    -dicaprio and nicholson didn't get any oscar nomination for this movie.

    1. I fixed the awards stuff. Late night posting through blurry eyes got the best of me there. As far as it drawing from all 3 IA movies, I honestly hadn't heard that before and I haven't seen parts 2 and 3. Thanks for the info and thanks for reading! I hope you'll be able to participate in this blogathon. I'd love to see what you came up with.

  2. I haven't seen the original...but I liked The Departed enough (didn't love it).

    Thanks for the reminder about your blogathon. I wanted to partake, but I've been so busy I forgot. I'll try and get something out this week!

    1. The original is very good in its own right. I just don't know how it plays to someone who has already seen "The Departed." Hope you can participate. Thanks!

    2. have an email? I have a blogging proposition for you :-D

  3. I really enjoyed The Departed it really took the whole crook cop and undercover cop story to a new level and I've been meaning to check IA ever since the Departed was released but once again it's one of those titles that just keeps being bumped down the queue.

    There's only two more days to your blogathon???... Gotta hurry and come up with something.