I admired Martin Scorsese’s last two movies, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, but I didn’t love them, and Scorsese is the kind of filmmaker who should inspire fanatical praise. The last two were handsome, big-budget epics but it felt like he was making movies to please Academy voters and not himself. The Departed is a departure from those sleek studio efforts, and places the director firmly back where he belongs, on the mean streets surrounded by gangsters, duplicity and violence.
Based on a Hong Kong film called Mo-gaan-do (titled Infernal Affairs in North America) The Departed, relocates to Boston and stylishly tells the story of two men on opposite sides of the law. Both are cops, one deep undercover in the organization of mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), the other an ambitious state trooper who appears to be on the straight and narrow, but is actually an employee of Costello’s. Both men, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon respectively, are tormented by their duplicitous lives, feeling trapped between the truth and lies, but neither has a way out of the situation. DiCaprio is so far undercover that officially he doesn’t exist, and Damon’s character owes a huge dept of gratitude to Costello. Their lives intersect both professionally—as they play cat and mouse with one another—and personally as they unwittingly become involved with the same woman, a beautiful therapist played by newcomer Vera Farmiga.
Scorsese skillfully tells this story about loyalty and men who lead dark, dangerous lives, infusing each frame of the film with excitement. He has created an unpredictable atmosphere, where the threat of trouble hangs over every scene. Not since 1995’s Casino has he so effectively embraced the down-and-dirty world of crime. The film is a study of contradictions, both in character and style—Scorsese mixes fluid camera work with hard-edged editing; his script is both darkly funny and brutally violent.
The movie’s large ensemble cast of Hollywood A-listers do great work. The youngest members of the above-the-title cast, DiCaprio and Damon, each set the bar very high. This may be DiCaprio’s first truly adult role, a man who can’t trust anyone and who battles his jangled nerves to do the right thing. Damon plays off his clean-cut image, expanding on his recent work in Syrianna and the Bourne movies, to present a good-guy façade that is being eroded by paranoia.
The rest of the cast, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Mark Walhberg (as the foul-mouthed Dignan) are stellar, but if there are two performances that look Oscar bound they are Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin.
Baldwin plays Ellerby, a task force head out to get Costello with gusto. The character is a mix of steely-eyed determination and goofy comedic relief, and Scorsese keeps him in check, allowing to walk to the edge of the cliff without ever jumping over into overacting. It’s a fine line and Baldwin walks it expertly.
In a film packed with great performances—it’s as if everyone was putting in extra effort for Scorsese—Jack Nicholson still manages to steal the show. Costello is his King Lear, a tyrant on the edge of madness, but with Nicholson’s burning eyes. Closing in on 70 years old he is still vital, still scary and still capable of blowing younger, prettier actors off the screen. There is a reason why some people are legends and in The Departed we are reminded once again why Nicholson is acting royalty.
The Departed finds Scorsese in top form, and is the coolest and best movie so far this year.
THIS WEEK’S PANEL
– Craig Courtice, a short filmmaker who isn’t very tall.
– Tracey Lazos, former deputy Arts editor at the Post who now works at the Boston Herald.
– Richard Crouse, host of Rogers Television’s Reel to Real, Canada’s longest-running movie review show, and the author of The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen (ECW Press, 2003). His Web site is www.richardcrouse.ca
This week’s pie Boston cream
This week’s subject The Departed
Craig An open letter to Jack Nicholson: Dear Jack, The Departed was a great film — too bad you missed it. Your performance was so off base I wonder if you even read the script. You took, for example, a wonderfully designed scene in a porno theatre and turned it into an improv blooper from Anger Management. A dildo? Seriously? This isn’t The Witches of Eastwick or Batman, buddy. You’re supposed to become the character, not a caricature. All I could think of after watching this was “Was Brian Cox too busy to play this part?” Because if he had played this Irish crime boss, he would have paid the same attention to craft that Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio did to their roles.
Those two were revelations, as was Mark Wahlberg. Honestly, if Marky Mark is out-acting you, don’t you think it’s time to devote yourself full-time to something you’re actually passionate about — after all, the Lakers should be pretty good this year.
Tracey You’d think that Nicholson, finally getting to work with Scorsese, would have thought to himself, “Now here’s a chance to do something really important.” Instead, he devours a big plateful of ham and lets his hair do all the acting. But I didn’t think his performance was as egregious as you did, Craig — the guy can still command a scene, and you have to admit, he was menacingly hilarious at times and a pretty scary villain. I wouldn’t want to run into him in Southie. The one thing he failed to bring to this movie that the other players contributed in huge dollops of Boston cream was class. Damon as the smooth-talking rat was a standout for me. That guy has cornered the market on duplicitous nasties you still want to take home to meet your mum.
But back to Jack. The Boston media is in a huge tizzy over the fact that Nicholson appears to channel Beantown’s most obsessed-over mobster-cum-fugitive, Whitey Bulger. Methinks they need to get out more.
Richard I’m with you Tracey. Nicholson’s performance is kind of cockamamie, but it shows that the old coot can still blow younger, prettier actors off the screen. His Costello is a modern day King Lear, an autocrat very much aware of his importance in the world and who uses that knowledge as a licence to behave badly. He’s at least partly crazy, but he’s no Boob McNutt. His madness is used like a parlour trick to unbalance those around him. Like Lear, it appears Costello made the decision to go 5150 to preserve command over his own life and the lives of those around him. The dildo and eating-the-fly scenes are ridiculous, but they are ridiculous on a grand scale. They show Costello’s volatility. I thought Nicholson’s blazing eyes captured that unhinged quality really well. There is a reason why some people are legends and in The Departed we are reminded why Nicholson is acting royalty.
Craig There’s no doubt Nicholson could act — in the ’70s. But now he seems content with shtick rather than the nuance he brought to films like Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown. Heck, if you really want to see what Nicholson is capable of you don’t even have to go back that far; The Pledge (2001) represents some of his finest work. There is a reason this guy has won three Oscars.
And speaking of Oscars, will The Departed finally win Scorsese his? As a huge fan, I’m of two minds on this. First, I think he obviously deserves one, and The Departed is good enough that it wouldn’t be a total sympathy trophy. Marty could also get back to making more artistic pictures like Kundun instead of pandering to the Academy with schlock like The Aviator. On the other hand, while the first 30 minutes of The Departed is the best film I saw this year and the last 30 ain’t half bad either, the middle hour-plus drags. I’m not saying it’s as painful as watching DiCaprio spell out “quarantine” in The Aviator, I’m just saying the whole erectile dysfunction theme was a little limp. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Tracey I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but I’m not a Scorsese connoisseur. I mean really not. A quick check of IMDb revealed that I’ve seen exactly four-and-a-half of his films. (I never made it through Raging Bull, but I think that’s because the sound on my rental was horrible.) Perhaps I’m just a big girlie-girl, but I’ve just never had much interest in Scorsese’s mean streets. And I enjoyed The Aviator a lot. (Told you — big girlie-girl.) So I was a bit hesitant about watching The Departed. But I loved this film. I loved that it was at once charming and shocking. I loved the fact that there was an intricate story but I didn’t need to wheel out the Universal Plot Explainer to figure out what the hell was going on. I love that Scorsese left his New York comfort zone, came to Boston and captured it so well — rats and all. Sure, there were a couple of scenes that bordered on farce, but we’ll just go ahead and blame Nicholson for those. I think Scorsese should win an Oscar for this movie, regardless of whether he deserves one for his body of work. But with Clint Eastwood breathing down his neck again with his latest epic, who knows?
Craig: The Post’s Vanessa Farquharson said of the 2004 film, which The Departed is based on: “Infernal Affairs may be the lamest-titled film to hit theatres this year, but will probably be the only one of its kind that doesn’t sell out with psychological melodrama and clichéd copspeak — if anything, it at least deserves bigger profits than the upcoming Hollywood remake.”
This remake business is always a bit tricky. On the one hand I remember being horrified at Bridget Fonda and Dermot McDumbass in Point of No Return, a truly awful remake of La Femme Nikita, one of my favourite films. But I liked what Cameron Crowe did with Vanilla Sky, a remake of Abre Los Ojos, which oddly also starred Penelope Cruz. Scorsese, of course, updated Cape Fear and paid homage to a number of classic Hollywood films in The Aviator. But this is the first time he’s tried his hand at remaking a film from another country and culture. Since I haven’t yet seen Infernal Affairs I can’t really comment, but I’d still like to hear your comments about whether this was a good idea. I suppose you could make the case that The Departed will get more people to watch the original, but isn’t this a bit backward? What is the recipe for good remakes? Is simply switching the setting from Hong Kong to Boston enough?
Tracey: What, no mention of director Leonard Nimoy’s stellar work turning Trois Hommes et un Couffin into Three Men and a Baby? It’s interesting that we focus on The Departed as a remake. I’m not suggesting it’s anything else, but I wonder how many people in the multiplex, cinema buffs aside, realize Scorsese’s flick is based on an apparently great Hong King thriller (I haven’t seen it either).
And even if they do know, does that affect the way they rate the movie? I came to The Departed having heard of Infernal Affairs and that’s about it. And I can’t say I’m any more interested in seeing it now, although I’m sure it’s no less deserving of praise. Perhaps if The Departed hadn’t been such a triumph, I’d be more inclined to rent its precursor. There’s obviously more to foreign-film remakes than location switching, although Scorsese’s decision to cast Boston in this case proved insightful. But how do you judge when the originals are seen so seldom here? And is there really any point in doing so anyway?
Ultimately, Scorsese has made a thrilling genre piece that stands on its own.
Richard: Remakes are a Hollywood tradition. Moviemakers have been recycling ideas and remaking movies for almost as long as they have been threading film through cameras. The Maltese Falcon’s story was a two-time hand-me-down before a third version made Bogart a star, proving that while most remakes aren’t successful — think The Omen, Mighty Joe Young or Psycho — they can occasionally triumph. I think Scorsese’s re-do of Infernal Affairs actually outdoes the original.
This weekend the story of a 12-year-old vampire who helps her young neighbour deal with bullies at school hits theatres.
It should, the movie is an American remake of a Swedish art house hit from less than twelve months ago. Let Me In, the English language remounting of Låt den rätte komma in, joins a long list of movies to paste an American stamp on its cinematic passport.
Let Me In is earning good reviews for its respectful treatment of the source material but that is not always the case. Critic Tom O’Neil warned, “Chances are, with the remake, Hollywood is just serving up re-fried beans that aren’t very tasty.”
Re-hashes like Weekend at Bernie’s, which was loosely based on the Indian cult classic Jane Bhi Do Yaaron and the Thai film Bangkok Dangerous, which won the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival international critics’ Award only to be retooled as a big budget, small-brained Nic Cage movie, have left a bad taste in viewer’s mouths but not all remakes are unpalatable.
The Departed, the Irish Mafia movie that gave Martin Scorsese his long deserved Best Director Oscar, was based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs.
Critics loved Scorsese’s film, giving it a 93 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, although Infernal Affairs star Andy Lau grumbled, “The Departed was too long,” and Andrew Lau, the original’s co-director said, “of course I think the version I made is better but the Hollywood version is pretty good too.”
Also pretty good is Insomnia, Christopher Nolan’s 2002 remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, the original’s story of a disgraced Swedish detective, played by Stellan Skarsgård, who struggles to solve a brutal murder case in northern Norway is a gritty psychological drama which writer Peter Cowie said “represents European cinema at its most challenging.”
The U.S. remake, starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank is a much different film. Roger Ebert said, “unlike most remakes, the Nolan Insomnia is not a pale retread, but a re-examination of the material, like a new production of a good play.”
These U.S. remakes have always been with us, and regardless of how Let Me In fares at the box office, are unlikely to stop. For better or for worse plans are already underway for an English remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starring Daniel Craig.