Andrew Lau and Andy Mak's 2002 Infernal Affairs has a scenario so excellent, it's amazing that it didn't appear until movies entered their second century (and readers are invited to let me know if it had): A powerful mob boss grooms a follower from childhood to join the police even as the police plant an undercover agent within the boss's crime family. Each organization realizes that it has been infiltrated, but it's not until the movie approaches its climax and after each mole has been enjoined to, in effect, find himself that the deeply buried parallel informants figure out each other's identity.
Its key dramatic roles assumed mainly by cell phones, Infernal Affairs is one of those rare movies in which the premise is the star. But in a concession to big-studio econonics, Scorsese has packed his remake with names. Matt Damon plays the rogue cop (Andy Lau's role in Infernal Affairs), and Leonardo DiCaprio is his undercover counterpart (embodied with soulful vulnerability by Tony Leung in the original). Towering over both youngsters, Jack Nicholson has the meaty and here, vastly inflated role of the patriarchal crime boss. Eric Tsang stole Infernal Affairs with his high-spirited malevolence; Scorsese hands Nicholson the keys in the actor's first scene.
The Departed is a wildly commercial project, but it's no work for hire. The opening burst of rock-and-roll mayhem a flashback street fight scored to the Rolling Stones is instant Scorsese. Moving the action from his usual New York (as much as from the original's Hong Kong) to the mean streets of South Boston, the filmmaker gets to refresh his stock in trade. The foulmouthed protagonists are cops rather than wiseguys, and the Irish gangsters' colorful ethnic invective encompasses Italians. Catholic guilt, however, remains a constant.
Infernal Affairs was surprisingly cool and effectively restrained for Hong Kong action. Scorsese raises the temperature with every ultraviolent interaction. The surplus of belligerence and slur reach near-Tarantino levels appropriate, given that Scorsese is staking a claim to that Hong Kong-loving director's turf. Screenwriter William Monahan (responsible for last year's Ridley Scott spectacle Kingdom of Heaven) provides some choice insults: "Hey, go save a kitten in a tree, you fuckin' homos," Damon taunts his rivals in a cop-versus-firefighter football game. No opportunity is missed to call a priest a pederast.
Besides a flair for the schoolyard bon mot, Monahan's major contribution is combining the spies' two love interests into one very, very nervous shrink played by Vera Farmiga thus creating the possibility for yet another betrayal.
The film craft the camera placement and Thelma Schoonmaker's slambang editing is first-rate, at least at first. Running two and a half hours, The Departed is 50 minutes longer than the original; the set pieces are more baroque than suspenseful, and the texture overwhelms the premise. The story unravels into a sodden mess before the not-very-climactic bloodbath, with Damon's rogue cop cracking under the strain of his charade as DiCaprio's volatile, Valium-gobbling fake mobster grows increasingly anxious.
DiCaprio's character is never sufficiently motivated, but his stolid nonperformance is ultimately more affecting than Damon's one-note interpretation. In a movie characterized by broad accents and broader characterizations, Mark Wahlberg has the distinction of delivering the least nuanced, most sympathetic (and funniest) turn, as the mouthiest cop on the force.
Of course, the Damon and DiCaprio characters are supposed to be acting. Not so with Nicholson's. Never to be ignored, the star appears with stage blood up to his elbows, plays pointless drunk scenes and reprises the satanic overtones of his role in The Witches of Eastwick. (For all the sulfur, Ray Winstone is far scarier as the mobster's second in command.) Scorsese has a long history of burdening films with unpleasant and even atrocious central performances, and Nicholson seems bent on twirling the mustache off Daniel Day Lewis' Gangs of New York heavy.
Neither a debacle nor a bore, The Departed works, but only up to a point and never emotionally. "I don't want to be a product of my environment," Nicholson boasts. "I want my environment to be a product of me." Yeah, yeah, and that's the problem. Overwrought as The Departed may be, it's nothing that wouldn't have been cured by losing one Mephistophelean hambone (and maybe half an hour).