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Posted Sunday, Oct. 01, 2006

 

Faithful Departed

Marty, Leo, Matt and Jack channel the spirit of a classic Hong Kong crime movie

by Richard Corliss

 

An undercover cop worms his way into the trust of a powerful mobster. The mobster's young protege joins the police force and rises quickly through the ranks. Each man knows there's an infiltrator in the other group, but neither knows who the mole is. The two double agents, good and bad, have to find out and, finally, they have to face off. Donnie Brasco, meet Kim Philby.

Just hearing the set-up 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 Max 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 the 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).

As with any gnarly crime plot, this one dares to strain credulity. Once or twice, a skeptical viewer may ask, What are the odds? The odds that Billy would commit all manner of crimes, to prove his underworld bona fides, and never get so much as an interested glance, let alone a collar, from the cops who don't know he's one of them. The odds that Colin would rise so quickly in the force, and be deemed so trustworthy that he'd be assigned to sleuth out the rat on the team ? himself. "The Departed" adds one coincidence even the Hong Kong film didn't dare: that both men would become romantically involved with the same woman, Madolyn, a police psychiatrist, well played by Vera Farmiga. (In the original, the shrink and the bad cop's girlfriend were separate characters.) Oh, and the cell phones all these guys whisper their subversions into - can't they be bugged?

Scorsese, surely the American cinema's most vigorous classicist, is also the unrivaled master of movie exposition. Nobody can get a movie going like him, and sustain it with camerabatics and an attention-deficit editing ethic. The problem with his films, if it is one, is that they often describe a degeneration based on repetition. His characters' tragic flaw is that their crimes are their obsessions; they become addicted to expressing the beast within themselves. This makes for explosive moments in an anti-dramatic trajectory, so his his films don't build, they simply accrue - and then collapse, like a runner exhausted at the end of a marathon.

"IA" to the rescue. Instead of unwinding, as Scorsese's movies tend to, this one keeps coiling, a python of a plot that puts the what-happens-next? element of standard, superior storytelling at the forefront of the audience's mind. Viewers are alerted to trust no one; immediately or ultimately, five of the characters will reveal that they are not what they seem. The anticipation of trickery keeps a movie crowd on its toes. And because the story is so strong, Scorsese can elaborate on it without looking self-indulgent. One visual strategy: he plants X's everywhere, on the walls and in diagonal grouping of characters, to suggest the crisscrossing of Billy and Colin, and of the four lines of conflict (Billy and Colin and their respective father figures) that keep converging and colliding. Sometimes, in an obvious visual correlative, the X's are in pairs: a double cross.

For those who've seen Infernal Affairs, the Scorsese movie will be an expert variation, without the wallop of the original. That's what usually keeps remakes from entering the Pantheon. But this one works on its own by allowing the director to touch on one of his favorite themes: the vectors of power and threat in male relationships, which here is complicated by the fact that the two main guys, whose mission is to find the other, don't meet until near the end of the movie.

Monahan has given Scorsese and the actors plenty to work with. Frank, played by Nicholson with a George Carlin goatee and crusty demeanor, is a juicy creation, a mobster who revels in his connoisseurship of executive violence. ("One of us had to die," he says of a gangland face-off. "With me it's usually the other one.") He has words of wisdom for a thug who says his mother is near death. "So we all are," Frank observes. "Act accordingly." In Billy he sees a bright, focused young man with ambitions, though Frank misreads them. "You wanna be me," he tells the kid, who replies, honestly for once, "I probably "could" be you. But I don't "wanna" be you."

Damon has said he's pleased to be playing a bad guy, but of course he's playing a bad guy playing a good guy. (He had a similar role, of the charming swine, in "The Talented Mr. Ripley".) What's true about Colin's nature is that he's the man on the rise and on the make, with a practiced smile that can impress the cops and please the ladies. When he meets Madolyn, the shrink, he suavely spouts this apercu: "Freud said the Irish were the only people who were impervious to psychoanalysis." (The "impervious" is a lovely touch - it tells you Colin has rehearsed this line in his head - as is the oenophile's smoothness with which Damon spits out that mouthful of words.) The lies he has to tell to be successful in his job are so much a part of him, he might have ceased fretting about them. Colin left his morals behind in childhood, when Frank took him under his wing.

Damon's performance is suave and scrupulous; Nicholson has almost too much fun; and in a large, stalwart cast I especially liked Ray Winstone as Frank's ruthless hit man, and Farmiga as the woman two lonely men need to confide in or betray. DiCaprio is the standout. Every second of Billy's life is as a spy behind enemy lines; DiCaprio shows the tension such a man feels, the determination and the grace inside him.

This year, DiCaprio's toughest competition for a Best Actor Oscar may be himself - he's pretty sensational as a Rhodesian jewel smuggler in Edward Zwick's "Blood Diamond", due out in December. He's gone from precocious child star (in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") to teen idol (in "Titanic") to full-fledged Actor, brilliant at allowing the viewer to discover, as if in confidence, the emotions that roil his characters' souls. In his third shot with Scorsese, after "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator", DiCaprio has become the director's new DeNiro - implosive instead of explosive, but just as crucial to each other's success and identity. I hope they make more film together, with DiCaprio as the tortured good-cop in Scorsese's cinematic inferno.

Thanks to Shaolin !

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