Infernal Affairs and The Departed

Both on DVD.

I didn’t see Infernal Affairs in the theater—few Americans did; it played for a matter of days on just a handful of screens nationwide, no doubt to fulfill contractual demands connected to the purchase of remake rights—but I read about the Hong Kong thriller, Netflixed it as soon as it became available on DVD, and absolutely loved it. The smart, relentless plot, the exquisitely crafted parallels, the powerful central performances—it was already great, and I cringed to think of it being remade.

So when that remake, The Departed, came out in theaters last year, I ignored it, despite its great cast, despite the good reviews, and despite the fact that Martin Scorsese had directed it. Seeing The Departed, I feared, would be a betrayal of Infernal Affairs, which I already served as an overeager missionary. (“Ignore the DVD case! I know it’s cheesy, but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the movie. Which is great! Tony Leung! You saw Hero, right? No? Well, he’s amazing. And everything intertwines so perfectly. It’s so much fun! Really! So you want to borrow it? Oh, The Bourne Identity? Well, yeah, that’s fun, too, of course, but it’s on TV all the time. You sure you don’t want to watch Infernal Affairs instead?”)

But TiVo recently recorded The Departed on its own, and I came down with a miserable cold (which, incidentally, is why it’s taking me so long to get anything written), and I thought, what the hell. It’s Martin Scorsese. Infernal Affairs will understand.

And now I’m torn. Having seen the American remake and revisited the Hong Kong original, I have to admit that The Departed is sleeker and more polished that Infernal Affairs. (To be fair, few directors can go toe-to-toe with Scorsese.) But just as back-to-back viewing forced me to face some of the flaws of my beloved cops-and-criminals flick, it also illuminated some of the original’s strengths.

The Departed is, for the most part, quite faithful to Infernal Affairs. A cop (Leonardo DiCaprio/Tony Leung) works undercover in a criminal gang, and a gang member (Matt Damon/Andy Lau) has infiltrated the police. One fateful night, when both serve as moles for their respective sides during a sting that goes bad, each becomes aware of the other’s presence, but neither knows who, exactly, the other is. The cop and criminal each must try to uncover the other, both for occupational reasons and for reasons of self-preservation, creating an intricate double cat-and-mouse game with constantly shifting roles.

In Infernal Affairs, the focus is on the two principal characters, leaving everyone else in the background, and Leung and Lau hold the spotlight with mesmerizing performances. By the end of the movie, the conflict has transcended self-preservation; it’s about identity—whether the masks they’ve worn from years have changed who they are underneath—and it’s enormously compelling. The final confrontation has the weight of real tragedy.

The Departed, by contrast, is earthier, and that final confrontation doesn’t have anything like the gravity of the original. It’s not a dramatic climax so much as a desperate, messy showdown, like animals frantically trying to claw their way to safety—a valid interpretation, certainly, but less satisfying here, especially as DiCaprio and Damon haven’t been able (or perhaps haven’t had the opportunity) to give their characters the nuance and depth that their Hong Kong counterparts have.

Scorsese exacerbates the problem by allowing his supporting actors to distract from the central conflict. Mark Wahlberg is obnoxious and brash as a pointless new character, the very presence of which creates an enormous plot hole in the American version. Alec Baldwin is funny, but he’s showboating here in another inconsequential role. Jack Nicholson has an important part, that of the gang boss, but he runs wild, often shattering the tension with his antics. Take the scene in which the gang boss meets with his mole in a dark theater while the undercover cop tails them. In Infernal Affairs, that moment is quietly taut and charged, an electric start to a riveting, nearly silent cat-and-mouse sequence. In The Departed, Nicholson makes a ribald entrance waving a giant dildo. He laughs, Damon sulks, and it’s all very silly, undermining the suspense.

That said, The Departed improves the Infernal storyline in one big way: It condenses the two weakly drawn female characters (the criminal mole’s girlfriend and the undercover cop’s shrink) into a single strong character, played by Vera Farmiga, thereby streamlining the subplots and making the woman more of a player in the fallout. Sure, that choice ups the coincidence factor considerably, but people who have issues with coincidence are going to have problems with the movie anyway. And even those people have to appreciate Farmiga’s sharp performance.

Her no-nonsense manner goes a long way to eliminating the weird romanticism of Infernal Affairs, but it’s hardly necessary. While Infernal contemplates the possibility of redemption, Scorsese’s Departed is infinitely more cynical. Virtually everyone’s hands are too bloody to ever be clean, and the world is too twisted and duplicitous and violent to reward clean hands anyway. I respect the grittiness of Scorsese’s vision, but the feints at a starker realism make some of the plot coincidences feel strained (they feel completely natural in the classically tragic framework of Infernal). Furthermore, the Departed denouement is so unrelentingly grisly and bleak that it loses some of its bite—the shock wears off.

So which movie do I prefer? I can’t decide. They’re both good, but I fear that I now enjoy each a bit less for having seen its counterpart. Each movie highlights the shortcomings of the other, while its own failings come into starker release, as well. Ironically, after having pouted about Infernal Affairs being remade, I now find myself hoping that a couple of decades from now, some hotshot young director will decide to remake it again, taking the best from both versions. Maybe three times will be a charm.