The Departed (2006) and Infernal Affairs (2002)
WARNING: COMPLETE SPOILERS FOR BOTH FILMS.
This is an essay about the nature of the adaptation, and not a movie
review article. It won't even make much sense unless you have seen The
Asian cinema doesn't need official acknowledgement of its merits from the West. Great films of many kinds have been coming from Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for years. Yet it still must be a thrill for the Asian filmmakers to be so publicly respected by Martin Scorsese, the distinguished éminence grise of the Hollywood film community, who remade a recent Asian film (Infernal Affairs) for his latest project (The Departed). After all, Marty is a god to these guys as well as to young American directors! John Woo dedicated The Killer to Scorsese, and Wong Kar-wai basically used Scorsese's Mean Streets as a template for As Tears Go By.
(Note: a reader informed me that Scorsese did not know that the screenplay was a remake of Infernal Affirs when he selected it. See the bottom of the page.)
Infernal Affairs and The Departed have virtually the same basic plot, many identical specifics, and even some nearly-identical scenes. A gangster cultivates a police mole from the time the boy is in elementary school. The kid's assignment is to maintain a spotless record through school and in the police force, so that he can attain positions of trust, and thus report important information back to the crime lord. In essence, he is the perfect straight-arrow cop in all respects except that he passes on key facts which protect one particular gangster.
Parallel to the career of the cop-informant, we witness the development of a mob-informant. An elite police unit recruits an exceptionally bright youngster from a family with a criminal history. His assignment is to go deep undercover, so deep that his identity will always be unknown even to other cops except for one or two men. For years, he works his way through a mob until he is the local crime boss's most trusted associate.
The plot comes to a head when both organizations simultaneously realize that they have a rat in their midst. The supreme irony is that the job of identifying the police rat goes to the most trusted man in the organization, who happens to be the rat himself. Meanwhile, the rat in the mob is also one of those who is nearly above suspicion, but lives in a paranoid world where he believes he could be discovered at any minute. The tension mounts as each undercover man struggles to avoid detection while still providing information to his true master.
The most interesting and valuable elements of
comparison are the changes the screenwriter made from the
original version, many of which reflect on what America will or won't
accept in a movie.
In the Asian version, the bad guy (the mobster's mole within the police department) wins everything. He manages to kill everyone who knows of his existence, including the gangster himself. But there is an important psychological subtlety to this victory. His triumph doesn't really represent a victory of evil over good, because he has no choice in the future but to be the good cop he has pretended to be. We know this from things he says and does, but also because it is a simple matter of fact. There is nobody left to inform to. Only his girlfriend knows that he has been living a double life. In fact, he engineered the events with this particular outcome in mind, and killed the mobster just so he could end the masquerade. Yes, the bad guy won an absolute victory, but with the ironic twist that he has now become a good guy forever.
Be careful what you pretend to be ...
I found this to be the single best element of the script of Infernal Affairs, but The Departed abandoned it, presumably because American audiences wouldn't want to deal with such a complex idea. The Departed replaces the "bad guy wins but is forced to turn good" irony with a simple "bad guy gets his comeuppance" scene. Since the script is an extremely complex puzzle, that one change required the screenwriter to make several other changes and additions to earlier elements of the already labyrinthine plot. First of all, it required a new character. In the Asian version, the police captain of the special undercover unit was the only man who knew the identity of his man within the mob, and the bad guy was assigned to take over that unit when the captain died, whereupon he erased the file of the undercover officer. With the captain dead, the undercover cop dead at the end, and the undercover cop's file erased, there was nobody left to keep the bad guy from complete triumph. In order to change the ending, the script for The Departed required another uncorrupted cop to know of and trust the undercover agent, so that the bad guy could eventually get his just due. Thus was Mark Wahlberg's role created. A second change was required. In the Asian version, the bad cop eventually kills the mobster himself simply because he has decided to become what he has always pretended to be. Since The Departed changed the ending, he had to change one of two other elements (1) either the bad cop kills the mobster for a different reason, or (2) he doesn't kill the mobster at all. I suppose that the latter didn't seem like a real option, so a reason had to be created for the betrayal. What could it be? Well, it turns out that the mobster himself is something of a mole. He is providing information to the FBI about various matters relevant to national security. When the bad cop realizes this, he fears that the mobster is willing to sell out anything to protect his own skin, even the identity of his man within the Massachusetts State Police department. I suppose that makes some sense in context, but it added yet another unnecessary layer to a story which was already complicated enough without the Feds getting involved, and without the possibility that even the insane, murderous Costello was being protected by some law enforcement agency for some reason or another. In other words, The Departed's screenplay replaced all the psychological complexity of the original film with a more complicated plot, and did all of that just to eliminate an element which I found to be the best part of the original script!
I can only speculate that this change was made because the screenwriter felt that American audiences could not accept the fact that the bad guy won an absolute victory, nor the fact that he was no longer a bad guy, but was now the great cop he had pretended to be. (And even turned himself in voluntarily in some versions. The film has had different endings at various times.)
The Departed added a rather contrived connection between the two moles: they were both hitting on the same woman, a police shrink played by Vera Farmiga. I guess you might fairly argue that such a connection was a weak device ipso facto, since it piled one more unlikely coincidence on top of many others in the film, but that isn't my point here. The Departed missed the interesting situation which was created in Infernal Affairs by the bad cop's girlfriend. She was a fiction writer, and was working on a new book in which she had created a character which was giving her problems. The reason? The character had multiple personalities, and she couldn't figure out whether the character should be good or bad. Since the bad cop was in exactly the same situation, she had conversations with the cop which were about her fictional character, but were really also about her lover. At first, only the cop was aware of the double entendre implicit in all these conversations, but the girlfriend gradually came to understand more, to her horror. This was one more case where the American version substituted plot complexity for psychological complexity.
In the Asian version of the film, it is completely clear from the very first scene that the mobster has many moles in the police force, not just the one guy who is featured in the story. Although this fact is never mentioned again until the very end, when it becomes essential to the plot, it is established at the very beginning of the film, and in terms which are neither subtle nor ambiguous. The script for The Departed, on the other hand, chose to hide the other moles from view until the very moment when it was necessary to introduce them. I will leave it to you to decide which approach you prefer. Personally, I do not like when a plot development comes as a deus ex machina - when a main character seems to be completely painted into a corner and a theretofore unsuspected plot element emerges from nowhere to get him out of a scrape that simply can't be escaped, given only those elements previously known to the audience. I subscribe to the school of mystery which says that the writer must plant all the clues within the plot so that the reader or audience member can solve the mystery himself if he is smart enough and has been paying close enough attention. On the other hand, you could rebut that bringing surprises out of the blue can add thrills and an element of additional fun to certain types of operatic, over-the-top scenarios, of which this is certainly an example.
Somewhere in the years before their climactic tete-a-tete in Infernal Affairs, the Asian cop pretending to be a mobster meets the Asian mobster pretending to be a cop in a completely neutral situation: discussing stereo equipment in an electronics store. They have no idea who the other is or is pretending to be, nor do they recognize one another from the police academy, where they were classmates. When they meet years later, the bad cop, suddenly the good cop's new boss after the death of the captain, says "So it's you," and makes a comment about sound equipment. I can't tell you precisely why I liked this element of the script. It was completely irrelevant to the plot and slowed the action down with a silly discussion of electronics and music. I understand completely why it was cut, but I did like this little touch of poetry, and I missed it in the Scorsese version.
Some changes made for clean-up:
The screenwriter of The Departed could see that certain sketchy elements of Infernal Affairs required more explanation. In the Asian script, there is no good reason why the good guy is able to penetrate the mob so effectively after being dropped from the police academy, other than that he spends ten years working undercover doing dirty deeds that no cop would ever do, thus earning the trust of the baddies. Furthermore, he is not being targeted against a specific mobster, but is just charged with general infiltration of the criminal underworld. He spends seven years undercover before he even gets to work in the same gang as the featured mob boss. The American script wisely filled in the details. To begin with, the police were after a specific mob boss, and recruited a guy with a strong likelihood of being able to penetrate that crime organization. The kid came from a family that had always had close ties to the targeted mobster. After the recruit accepted the assignment, the script had him dishonorably discharged from the police academy, and even forced him to earn credibility by spending several months in jail before returning to his old South Boston neighborhood. Then he began his life of crime with his mentally-challenged cousin in the territory of the targeted boss, but making no effort to contact the boss himself. Finally, he attracted the attention of the boss by kicking the asses of some Italian gangsters who were trying to muscle into traditionally Irish territory. The script of The Departed did a good job of establishing how the undercover cop might plausibly have infiltrated the mob.
The screenwriter also realized that he needed to add some motivation to the "bad cop." After all, everyone in the department thinks the guy is a great cop and a total straight arrow. With his career going so well, why does he continue to report to the mob boss? In the Asian movie, I think his motivation was implied to be loyalty to the guy who treated him like a son. Apart from that, he didn't seem to get much out of it. That seemed to be a pretty weak motivation to hand the Matt Damon character in the American remake, so The Departed made it more complicated than that. Damon was an extremely poor kid. The mobster not only made his childhood comfortable, thus inspiring loyalty to begin with, but was continuing to provide him with lavish benefits. We see Damon purchase a lavish condo, and he summarily dismisses the suspicions of a real estate agent with, "I have a co-signer."
Of course, that situation created as many problems as it solved. Yes, greed made for a very believable motivation in a young American who was raised dirt-poor, but what the mobster's financial assistance added in motivation, it subtracted in credibility. Is it possible that the real estate agent is the only guy in the world who notices that Damon has purchased a condo way out of the reach of a cop's salary? Isn't this the kind of red flag that police IA departments look for? Isn't this purchase, in fact, a risky thing for Damon to do, and liable to blow his cover? I guess we just have to accept it. The flaw resides not in this one tiny detail, but in the entire premise, which is inherently self-contradictory. In real life, why would the "world's greatest cop" remain loyal to a mob boss? We presume the answer to be "access to a lifestyle not affordable on a cop's salary," and yet that very lifestyle would betray him and compromise his value to the mobster. Hey, if you think screenwriting is so easy, then you come up with another reason for his continuing loyalty. I sure can't. It can't be that he thinks of the mobster as a father, because such a close relationship would have been spotted in his background checks. If you think about it, the mobster would have always had to keep the boy at arm's length in order to make him useful as a future mole. So if the motivation can't be money or loyalty, what could it be? I think the correct answer is, "It couldn't be. The entire premise is absurd." Yet that very premise is what makes The Departed such great fun, so you're just going to have to accept it. As I view it, at least the screenwriter was aware of the problem and tried to address it with the lavish apartment. I think he wrote it as subtly as could be done, given the inherently self-contradictory premise.
Various other changes:
The greatest successes of The Departed do not reside within the plot, nor within the psychological complexity of the characters, but come from the sheer size of the personalities involved. While the characters perform within the same plot outline as their Asian counterparts, each and every one of them has been constructed from whole cloth specifically to fit within the Southie environment. By playing a sardonic, brilliant, totally amoral, homicidal maniac, Jack Nicholson is basically recreating his role as The Joker, albeit without the green hair. Matt Damon's character is not such a complex man as the original Asian version, but is pretty much of a scheming self-serving Iago whose comeuppance we await eagerly. Mark Wahlberg's character, while fundamentally unnecessary (as explained above), is one of the best things about the film, a tough-talkin', insulting, profane good cop, a tough guy from a hardscrabble life who despises the pretty boys and prep schoolers who aren't "Irish tough" enough to do what needs to be done. Wahlberg's righteous bulldog is not an especially multi-dimensional character, but is an extremely entertaining one. Alec Baldwin is also entertaining as Wahlberg's antithesis, a college-educated cop who has risen through the ranks because of his sappy charm and political maneuvering, but who seems completely clueless when it comes to the reality of life in South Boston.
I learned from watching the elevator scene in Infernal Affairs (a great scene in both films, by the way) that buildings in Hong Kong don't have a fourth floor, for reasons similar to those which preclude the thirteenth floor from many American buildings! Who says you can't learn from movies?
The Departed and Infernal Affairs are quite different. Although they share virtually identical plots, and some scenes are replicated almost shot-by-shot, they have taken approaches which are poles apart. Infernal Affairs is really about the psychological impact of undercover work, and everything else takes a back seat to that. It has precious little action and violence for a Hong Kong film. As the New Yorker wrote:
One certainly cannot make comparable remarks about The Departed. Scorsese's take on the story is pure adrenalin-based entertainment, a larger-than-life narrative about broadly-drawn characters played by talented, charismatic stars. It is profane, funny, and operatically violent. Some things about it are brilliant. Although it is two and a half hours long, it never slows down for a second. Scorsese's narrative flow works so smoothly that the confusing plot doesn't seem confusing at all (unless you start trying to dissect it after the fact), and he maintains the nail-biting tension in scene after scene in which one or the other of the rats is either on the verge of being caught, or has to take a great risk for one reason or another. Several plot developments in the film come as shocking surprises of the guilty pleasure variety.
Many reviewers have hailed The Departed as Scorsese's return to the mean streets. I don't agree with that at all. It is his return to gangster pictures, but this is not a gritty, realistic tale based upon real events in Vegas and New York or upon plausible characters drawn from life. The Departed is a post-modern gangster film which is not filled with REAL cops and gangsters, but FILM cops and gangsters. The atmosphere has some real grit, but the plot contrivances can't be taken seriously, nor can the characters. This is a Tarantino film, as filtered through Hong Kong, then filtered again through South Boston. It is as far as one can possibly be from the dedicated realism of the Scorsese/DeNiro portrayal of Jake La Motta. Having said that, let me add that I think it is the best Tarantino film since - well, since Pulp Fiction.
I discovered from talking to my youngest son about this film that The Departed has a tremendous ancillary value. My son is 22 years old and loves movies, but is not really a student of film history, so was not much of a Scorsese fan. He saw The Aviator and Gangs of New York, but neither of them really impressed him much, and neither left him with any desire to learn more about Scorsese's earlier work. For all I know, he wasn't even aware that those two films were directed by somebody important to film history. The Departed changed all that. My son loved this film so much that he got his ass down to Blockbuster and rented Goodfellas, Casino, and others from Scorsese's filmography.
By the way, although The Departed is being accepted as an instant classic - #80 of all time at IMDb - Infernal Affairs is also rated a stellar 8.0 at IMDb, and is also in that site's top 250. Infernal Affairs is quite an excellent film in its own right, with cinematography and music to match the other fine elements I mentioned above. It is difficult for any film to withstand direct comparison to a Scorsese film, but Infernal Affairs holds its own overall, and it better in many ways.
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