What makes a good cover song? Different, but not too different. We still need to recognize the melody. Transformed by the cover artist’s own personal style so that the style is illuminated in relief. But not so transformed that we lose the essential power of the original. About halfway through Martin Scorsese’s cover version of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s “Infernal Affairs” trilogy, a love scene is scored to the great cover version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” by Van Morrison. Masterfully done, Van Morrison puts his whole soulful style behind it without making you wish you were hearing the Waters/Gilmour original. It has all of the lyrical and melodic power of the source while clearly demonstrating the specific talents of Van Morrison as an artist. Scorsese has long been known for his ability to pick just the right song for the right moment in his films, but maybe never as right as this choice, one that perhaps also reveals his own feelings about the movie he is making.
The thing is, most moviegoers will have no idea that they’re watching a remake and even if they did, would never have seen the source. Which is no problem at all since Scorsese has made an incredible cover version of the original, imbued with every ounce of his artistic personality transforming it into something both familiar and new. Now, when Alan Mak and Felix Chong first laid out the plot of “Infernal Affairs”, they must have stopped for a second to make sure it didn’t already exist. The central conflict they came up with is so high concept that it seems instantly to ring some rusty bell in the collective movie-going subconscious. It’s so obviously a good story that it’s incredible it took so long to make it to the screen.
In a nutshell, it’s about two cops, one of whom is sent by a crime boss to infiltrate and spy on the police, while the other is sent by the police to infiltrate and spy on the crime boss. Where an ordinary undercover cop story would have just a single line of tension, we now have two. Will the undercover cop be sniffed out and dumped in the river to sleep with the fishes, or will the undercover criminal be unmasked and arrested? How will one play off the other? Will either get so consumed by his false identity that he forgets who he was in the first place?
Mak and Chong laid out a series of complex scenes that focused on the issues of personal morality and the mutability of human nature, and this provides a strong foundation for William Monahan’s much expanded screenplay. With the riveting story beats mostly unchanged, Monahan is able to give Scorsese the storytelling confidence he never found in the structural quicksand of “Gangs of New York”. Here, he and Monahan could spend their energies trying to deepen and expand on the themes within the clever plotting, and in particular, the characters themselves. They began by finding a new environment in which to set the drama. It could have been any city, perhaps, but Boston is in many ways a wonderful choice, using the milieu of the Irish neighborhoods for a story of two local boys who can see only the twin futures of law enforcement or criminality.
The film brilliantly sets up the main characters and conflicts within the first 10 minutes, introducing us to the powerful local kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who states in the film’s first lines of dialogue, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me.” This sets up the themes behind the rest of the story, where two young men find themselves trying to escape their environments with tragic results.
Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, who is drawn to the magnetic personality and power of Costello as a boy, and grows up to be his pawn within the Boston Police department. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, who wants to escape his family’s history of criminal violence by becoming an honest police officer. He accepts the dangerous assignment offered by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to go deep undercover in the lion’s den of Frank Costello’s crime family. The rest of the film dynamically plays on the parallel tensions between these two characters, who are desperately trying to uncover each other’s identity and to protect and serve their respective fathers.
Scorsese’s talents are very specific, and in the last decade have been applied to material ill-suited to their best use. The director is a whiz with the camera, but his greatest talents lie with his interest in character. His best films, such as “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas”, are not about plot, but about people: You leave the theater talking about Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and Henry Hill. The vast improvement of “The Aviator” over the muddled “Gangs of New York” had less to do with Scorsese’s return to form than with the fact that it jettisoned the previous film’s allegiance to bad melodrama over character for a melodrama about character. You left the theater thinking not about Hollywood or aviation, but about Howard Hughes.
No one cares about or remembers Amsterdam from “Gangs of New York”, but the actor who played him has found his niche with Scorsese. Here, in his third collaboration with the director, Leonardo DiCaprio has joined that luminous roster with his performance as Billy Costigan, for it is this haunting character who we remember when we leave “The Departed”. DiCaprio has never demonstrated such control over his craft than in this performance, investing great human desperation and depths of vulnerability into Costigan, which he not only stands toe to toe with that grand scene stealer Jack Nicholson, but several times in the film actually steals scenes from the master thief himself.
DiCaprio gives Scorsese just what he needs to grease the wheels of the “Infernal Affairs” plot and make the work his own: a character so riveting that we forget about the nonsense melodrama about stolen microprocessors and cops and robbers and feel the full weight of human tragedy. There are moments here that feel like you are watching Brando in “On the Waterfront”, Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause”, or Newman in “The Hustler”. A classic performance where the character and actor become one. This is clearly the performance DiCaprio has been working towards for years, but perhaps it had to wait until now, when his face has started to give up its seemingly eternal youthfulness. He seems much more adult now as opposed to the passionate young man he played in “Titanic”, a character whose tragic death was one of a promising life cut short. Here, he believably displays a life lived, full of the scars of a real emotional past and present.
The rest of this cast cannot be faulted. “The Departed” is one of those films where every actor is given his turn to shine and each of these actors looks hungry for the spotlight. They are also given some fine dialogue by Monahan which resembles the beat and melody of Mamet without resorting to facile mimicry. Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen and very surprisingly, Mark Wahlberg all appear onscreen with both fists swinging. They’ve come to a Scorsese crime film and they’ve come ready to fight. In particular Mark Wahlberg, who seems ready to run off with the whole movie in his back pocket.
Damon is good in his role but seems to miss opportunities along the way to let us get closer to Colin. The movie’s drama would be increased if we felt more ambiguous about Colin’s actions. As it is, we lose respect for Colin fast and soon grow to hate his weak and weaselly personality with a passion. The weakest link, however, must be Vera Farmiga as their shared love interest, a psychologist who moves in with the cold fish Damon but truly falls for the sensitive and caring DiCaprio. It’s not really the actress’ fault, as she is very capable in her craft, but rather that of Scorsese and Monahan who seem to be going through the motions with this contrived subplot.
“The Departed” may seem to many a return to form for Scorsese, but I don’t think he ever lost it. Not every film by a director can be a masterpiece, and when the bar is set as high as it is for this director, much good work can be seen as failure. “Gangs of New York” was a misfire, but an interesting one with moments of real brilliance, and “The Aviator” was as slickly made and well crafted as anything in his catalog. If “The Departed” is a return to anything, it’s superficially to the world he made his name with, those “Mean Streets” of “Goodfellas” and “Casino” — three films in a career spanning more than three decades and over 20 different films.
But here, it’s to different ends. With his great collaborators Michael Ballhaus and Thelma Schoonmaker at his side, Scorsese packs more information into a single screen minute of “The Departed” than most filmmakers can in ten. He is able to cover the song like a pro, respecting the melody while marching to his own beat. Craft and artistry, hand in hand.
(Note: This is a second review of “The Departed”. Read the first review here.)
Martin Scorsese (director) / William Monahan (screenplay), Siu Fai Mak, Felix Chong (screenplay “Infernal Affairs”)
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio …. Billy Costigan
Matt Damon …. Colin Sullivan
Jack Nicholson …. Frank Costello
Mark Wahlberg …. Dignam
Martin Sheen …. Oliver Queenan
Ray Winstone …. Mr. French
Vera Farmiga …. Madolyn
Anthony Anderson …. Brown
Alec Baldwin …. Ellerby