Just hearing the setup of this crime-movie storyline has audiences jittery with anticipation. It's rare that a plot gets people into theaters, but this one already has, and will again. Four years ago it was the scenario for Infernal Affairs, a terrific Hong Kong movie directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, and written by Mak and Felix Chong, which became one of the all-time top grossers in the ex-colony. Now it has been remade by Martin Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan as The Departed. Chances are that, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the good cop, Matt Damon as the bad one and Jack Nicholson as the crime boss, this very entertaining, densely layered, just-short-of-fabulous melodrama will rustle up some sturdy box office business of its own.
Infernal Affairs starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Hero, In the Mood for Love) as the good cop and longtime dreamboat Andy Lau as the mobster's mole became its own cottage industry. It spawned a sequel (IA II), a prequel (IA III) and, in glorious Hong Kong fashion, at least two ripoffs (the burlesque Love Is a Many Stupid Thing and a femme version, Infernal Mission). Nominated for 16 HK Film Awards, IA won seven: for picture, director, script, lead actor (Leung), supporting actor (Anthony Wong as Leung's police boss), cinematography and editing.
Casting Lau and Leung made for a superstar pairing equal, in Hong Kong, to DiCaprio and Damon or, since the Hong Kong actors are about a decade older than the Americans, to Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Leung's persona, of restrained brooding and worldly-wise resignation, has won him five Hong Kong Film Awards as Best Actor, two more as Supporting Actor, as well as Cannes' actor prize for In the Mood. Lau, whose retinue of teen fans follows him everywhere (he's also the most successful Cantopop singer of his generation), has been a lucrative movie commodity for two decades; in the early '90s, Triad bosses reportedly fought to sign him for the films they financed. Long considered a lightweight presence, Lau belatedly graduated from teen fave to compelling actor.
The two main roles would be catnip for any actor. The roles, after all, are about acting: the risk factors the men face, the bravado required, and the duplicity in their tasks, and thus their personalities, call for the subtlest pretense. And in IA, both actors met the challenge. Lau smartly inverted his famously ingratiating disposition, for in the movie he is fooling everyone but himself, his mob patron and the audience. While the Leung character gets to agitate privately about his isolation as an undercover agent, the Lau character never agonizes over the lie that is his life. Inside and out, he's smooth as a cyborg.
IA got a limited run in the U.S. two years ago (it's available on DVD), and what people remember from it, besides the tightening stress as the antagonists search for each other, are some cool set pieces: the 20min. scene of a drug deal monitored by the cops, as Lau and Leung try to get messages to their contacts without being caught; a couple of tense rooftop meetings that end in death; Leung's pursuit of Lau outside a movie theater; and the moment when a taxicab is abruptly flattened, out of the sky, by the falling body of one of the main characters. The remake includes all of these scenes (though the last one loses some of its sick impact when the body simply lands on the street). Indeed, this is a faithful version of IA just longer, by about a half-film, to flesh out the characters and give the actors more to play with.
The Departed is the fourth Scorsese remake, after New York, New York (inspired by the 1945 The Man I Love), Cape Fear and The Age of Innocence (both from novels that had been filmed before). In 2004 the director said he hadn't seen Infernal Affairs and wasn't planning to, but that almost doesn't matter. The Hong Kong movie's headlong confidence in using all resources of cinema (smart-jerky rhythms, a breathless narrative propulsion, the italicizing of a moment by a few frames of close-up slo-mo) to relate a tale of male bonding and betrayal all this is so close to the style and substance of Scorsese movies, he could practically play IA on the insides of his eyelids.
We're in familiar Scorsese territory, most assuredly, though it's been transplanted from New York to Boston, and from Italian Catholics to Irish Catholics. The movie's title comes from a Catholic prayer for the dead specifically, for those stranded in Purgatory, which is sort of a post-mortem car wash where the deceased have their lingering venial sins cleansed before they can get into Heaven. (The Prayer for the Souls in Purgatory, parroted thousands of times by distracted altar boys, goes like this: "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.") To Billy, and maybe Colin, the title says, "You're already dead, lads. R.I.P."
Here the good cop is Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), a member of the Massachusetts State Police evidently state troopers do more than set speed traps who reports to Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), the only two people who know his true identity. The mob cop is Colin Sullivan (Damon), and his boss is gangland kingpin Frank Costello (Nicholson).