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Bait and Switch

No studio director was a greater hero to the Hong Kong new wave than Martin Scorsese. John Woo dedicated The Killer to him; Wong Kar-wai modeled his first feature, As Tears Go By, after Mean Streets; Taxi Driver's rain-slicked slo-mo urban stylistics worked their way into countless lesser HK films. With The Departed, Scorsese returns the compliment — striving to bring it all back home by remaking the strongest Asian action film of the past few years.

Andrew Lau and Andy Mak's 2002 Infernal Affairs has a scenario so excellent it's amazing 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; Scorsese, however, has necessarily packed his remake with names. Matt Damon plays the rogue cop (Andy Lau's role in the original), with Leonardo DiCaprio as his undercover counterpart (embodied with soulful vulnerability by Tony Leung). 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 moonfaced malevolence; Nicholson is handed the keys to the kingdom in his first scene.

The Departed is a wildly commercial project, but let no one imagine it a work for hire. The opening burst of rock 'n' roll mayhem — flashback street fight scored to the Rolling Stones — is instant Scorsese. Transposing the action to the mean streets of South Boston, the filmmaker gets to refresh his stock in trade: The foul-mouthed protagonists are cops rather than wiseguys and, as the gangsters are Irish, the colorful ethnic invective can encompass Italians. The Deuce is here the Combat Zone; the resident, porn-haunted madman is a crime boss; the John Ford movie that's quoted isn't The Searchers but, inevitably, The Informer (it's shown on TV). Catholic guilt, however, is a constant.

Infernal Affairs was surprisingly cool and effectively restrained for HK action, but Scorsese raises the temperature with every ultra-violent interaction. The surplus of belligerence and slur reach near-Tarantinian levels — appropriate as he's staking a claim to QT's turf. Screenwriter William Monahan (responsible for last year's Ridley Scott crusades 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 police-fireman football game. No opportunity is missed to call a priest a pederast. (In addition to 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 — which is to say, 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. (By the time of the not-even-climactic, mondo bloodbath, car-crash shootout, the story's a sodden mess.) Farmiga's role notwithstanding, psychology is primitive: Damon's rogue cop starts to crack 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 non-performance 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 Nicholson's, but never to be ignored, the star skews crazier and crazier, appearing with stage blood up to his elbows, playing pointless drunk scenes, pulling whimsical rat faces, reprising his satanic role in The Witches of Eastwick after a night at the opera. (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's heavy in Gangs of New York — a role that really belonged to producer Harvey Weinstein.

Neither a debacle nor a bore, The Departed works but only up to a point, and never emotionally — even if the director does contrive to supply his version of a happy ending. "I don't want to be a product of my environment," Nicholson boasts at the onset. "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 Jack (and maybe half an hour). Too bad the bottom line meant Scorsese had to sell that hambone Mephistopheles his soul.

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J. Hoberman
Contact: J. Hoberman

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