When Infernal Affairs was released in Hong Kong to great commercial and critical success it was immediately snaffled up for a Western remake, as was very much the style at the time, becoming of course The Departed. We thought we’d take this opportunity, fifteen years after the original’s release and a rather less rounded eleven after the Western adaptation to see how they both hold up. There’s a better than evens chance we’ll get into spoiler territory here, so if you haven’t seen one or t’other of these excellent films we heartily recommend that you slap on the pod-breaks and watch them, and come back to us when you’re good and ready.
While the films have a fair amount of differing plot details, the bulk of them aren’t important to the overall arc of the story. In both, a local crimelord takes the step of asking a fresh new recruit into the gang to instead enter the Police Academy, and report on the zany hijinks going on in there. Or, well, become a mole, with the idea that a flow of information to and from the gang leader to the mole will let him dismantle any rivals operations and stay one step ahead of the po-po.
Meanwhile, rather more conventionally the cops are going in the other direction, taking a smart but overly angry recruit from a family with criminal links and asking him to work undercover, washing him out of Academy and having him enter the crimelord’s service. Time passes, and both moles rise to positions of prominence. The crisis kicks off when both teams work out that these moles exist and start taking steps to flush them out, leading to increasingly bloody operations with a slightly different outcome, depending on which film you’re watching.
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Infernal Affairs tells the story of two undercover agents; one, Yan (Tony Leung), a police officer in a triad gang, the other, Ming (Andy Lau), a police inspector whose true boss is the head of that same triad gang.
After a quick setup of the two moles, the action really begins with an incredibly tense sequence involving a drug deal, and the cat and mouse game of each mole’s respective boss relying on their man’s information to give them an advantage. In the end it’s a no-score draw, but it reveals to each boss that they have an infiltrator in their ranks, and sets up the rest of the film as a pursuit for their identities.
As much as this is shot and edited like a classic Hong Kong action film, it’s less about the action and more about the psychological toll that the work and the double-life takes on the lead characters. Tony Leung’s Yan looks particularly dreadful, like he has been through hell (the Chinese title of the film refers to the lowest level of hell in Buddhism, which involves perpetual suffering). Physically Lau’s Ming fares better, but there is a haunted look in his eyes that betrays his torment as his conscience continually nags at him. Both men are nearing breaking point.
It’s a striking looking film – the blue and silver palette combined with brisk camera work and editing – makes Hong Kong a visually appealing setting, but it never gets bogged down with lingering shots. In all aspects it’s a very economical film.
I always very much liked The Departed, but I hadn’t watched Infernal Affairs in a very long time, and it is only watching them in such close proximity that I realised, good as The Departed is, how much tighter, more efficient and just better Infernal Affairs is.
There are elements in Infernal Affairs that The Departed copies almost wholesale, but with enough of a difference that it entirely changes the effect, or has no point. Or often it just puts in something that was in the original (the setting up of a team to investigate the mole in the police force, the following of the mole from the cinema) largely because it was in the original, without it really making sense.
The most egregious example of this is when Sullivan asks Costello to get all of the social security numbers and personal information of his crew. In Infernal Affairs nobody knows anything about Yan (who has also been undercover for many years). In The Departed, everybody knows Costigan’s name, and Costello has known him from the beginning, and knew that he was in the police. Therefore there is no tension, no worrying that Costigan will get found out – his real identity is already known. The scene is there because in Infernal Affairs it is there. It sets up Costigan’s later discovery of Sullivan as the mole, but on its own it doesn’t work.
Near the beginning of IA, Ming tricks a gangster into giving up the location of his gang. This is actual police work – it doesn’t serve his boss, it shows that Ming is capable and actually performs genuine service at times. The corresponding scene in The Departed is nearly identical, except that it aids Costello, making Matt Damon’s character less nuanced and less interesting.
There are lots of little things like this in The Departed – less ambition, less ambiguity of character, less subtlety – that means that even if it wanted to, The Departed couldn’t pull off the crisis of conscience that Infernal Affairs does. Lau’s Ming begins to be plagued by doubts towards the end of the film; he is tiring of the double-life, and seems to have a growing conscience, and it seems, while he has done too much harm to be redeemed, that at least he might give being the good guy a go, and it would be believable.
Andy Lau is a better actor than Matt Damon, and that’s certainly part of it, but his character is also written more interestingly and with greater depth than Damon’s Sullivan. Sullivan is selfish and shallow, and had they tried the same thing in The Departed it would have rung hollow. Sullivan’s character never develops – he’s a self-serving jackass at the beginning, the same at the end.
Mark Wahlberg’s character Dignam, an addition in The Departed, seems to exist to be a belligerent pillock, for no reason whatsoever. I’m pretty much certain that he was written in just so that he could be the avenger at the end, because he serves almost no purpose other than being a swearing delivery device for the rest of the film. Oh, and talking of the end – Scorsese must have been having an uncharacteristic off-day to allow such an obvious and ham-fisted bit of imagery as the rat scuttling by on Sullivan’s balcony to make it into his finished film.
Character-wise, though, The Departed earns a big win in one area: Frank Costello. Eric Tsang’s Hon Sam is largely anonymous in Infernal Affairs, appearing at first almost as a kindly, avuncular uncle, and never really feeling particularly menacing or dangerous at any point. Jack Nicholson steals (well, chews) every scene that he’s in, and he’s phenomenally entertaining. He’s a much better foil for Martin Sheen’s Queenan than Sam is for Anthony Wong’s SP Wong. It’s just disappointing that his character was given so much racist and misogynistic dialogue. Was it really necessary? There is a downside to Nicholson’s presence, though, in that it rather takes away focus from Damon’s and Di Caprio’s characters, and it’s meant to be their story.
Infernal Affairs is much faster paced than The Departed, which seems almost pedestrian by comparison. Much of the difference comes from The Departed’s need to explain everything, as well as give the two main characters back story. The Hong Kong film spends a few minutes setting them up, and then it’s bang! and they’re into the action, and it trusts its audience to pick up who is doing what, to who, and why, without having to spell it out (as long as you pay attention, but I don’t see how you could not, as it’s riveting). I wonder if part of that is a film culture thing. I’ve thought for years that mainstream Hollywood never credits its audience’s intelligence sufficiently (something that of course becomes, or has become, a self-fulfilling prophecy), and feels it necessary to over-explain.
Martin Scorsizzle’s return to gangster movies was always going to be hotly anticipated after the likes of Goodfellas and_Casino_, but I must confess my reliably unreliable memory no longer recalls if I was pleased or disappointed that he was remaking a film I already though was plenty good enough, thanks.
At any rate, I shouldn’t have worried, as while my review at the time thought this was very good but an unnecessary remake, I’d say it’s the better film having re-evaluated them in the cold harsh light of Dystopian Space Year 2017. The Departed moves the action to Boston, with Jack Nicholson playing mob boss Frank Costello, befriending a young and impressionable Colin Sullivan, who grow up to become Matt Damon. He’s off to join the cops while in the opposite direction Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan is approached by police boss Queenan (Martin Sheen) and foul-mouthed head of the undercover unit Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to act more like his thuggish extended family than his upstanding, deceased father and get in with Costello’s outfit.
This version of the story isn’t afraid to pack it to the gunwales with characters, with a very fine ensemble cast that also includes the likes of Alec Baldwin, David O’Hara, Ray Winstone and Vera Farmiga who all acquit themselves well, but it’s Damon’s smarm and DiCaprio edge that makes the greatest impact. It nice to see Jack Nicholson turn up and act for a change, after a run of questionable performances, and that rounds out a great ensemble.
Here’s a rare example where making the film longer actually helped, the extra half hour or so over Infernal Affairs giving the story a little more room to breathe while being as relentlessly paced as the original.
While it may be a language barrier, I also think it does a better job of showing the struggles both Costigan and Sullivan are having keeping their true character and their cover straight – certainly more so than the overblow hystrionics of Infernal Affairs III.
A very worthy remake, all things considered.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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