A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Two movies, one story – betrayal and secrets

In action on August 21, 2009 at 2:32 am

When it comes to stories about moles and cops and gangsters and relationships and surprise twist endings, you’re probably going to think of one of two movies. Which, coincidentally, happen to be the same movie – one made in Hong Kong and the other in Boston. The 2004 movie, starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung, called INFERNAL AFFAIRS, is about Inspector Lau and triad thug Yan (played respectively, by Lau and Leung) one is a police inspector, put in charge of finding the mole in his department, which ironically enough is himself, as well as finding the mole that the police have planted in his crime boss’ gang – which is Yan, who also has to try and find out who the mole is in the police department. The only man that knows that Yan is actually an undercover cop is Superintendent Wong (played by Anthony Wong), and the crime boss, Sam, is played by Eric Tsang. These are the key players, and we get their opposites in the American remake in the form of; Matt Damon, as Colin (with the same basic character description as Inspector Lau), Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan in the Yan role, Martin Sheen as Queenan the only man that knows Costigan is a cop (well, besides his lieutenant, who I’ll get to later) and Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello, in the role of Sam. The American remake, is of course THE DEPARTED, which in 2007 won director Martin Scorsese his first Oscar for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay (among also winning for Best Editing, for Scorsese’s long-time collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker and a nomination for Best Supporting Actor – again, which I’ll get to later).

The two movies carry a lot of the same plot points, how to tell if someone is a cop, a broken hand cast that’s broken to look for a bug, cell phone communication between parties to warn about the other side getting close, and recorded conversations. I have to say, and this could be from the ideal of “whichever movie you saw first, you tend to like better” or as I think it’s just a better movie, but THE DEPARTED is the superior movie. While the director of INFERNAL AFFAIRS is pretty prolific in Asia – and I can’t attest to the quality of his other works, but he’s not a Scorsese; who has brokered a corner of the movie market on the gangster genre since his earliest movies, BOXCAR BERTHA (not an actual gangster movie, but a crime movie about outlaws) and MEAN STREETS – also the first collaboration with Robert DeNiro.

The biggest differences between the movies are in the area of the love interests and it’s in this area that I actually kind of prefer the way that INFERNAL AFFAIRS handles it. Mostly, because there’s not a coincidental motif happening, as in Departed. Each of the main characters, Lau and Yan, have their own women – and in Yan’s life a couple of different ones. There is a similar moment in both movies that deals with the paternity of a child, and it’s handled quite a bit more subtly and with more nuance in Affairs. The other major difference, is that at the end of Affairs, Lau chooses, of his own volition to kill the crime boss. Whereas in Departed, Colin does it to protect his own ass. (Which, I understand is meant to continue the ideal that no one is really good or bad, but sometimes I’m a sucker for a good guy doing things cuz they’re right.)

The things that really make THE DEPARTED stand out as a superior movie, are in a number of the performances and just the shock and complete mind-blowing ending. I think that maybe Affairs – which is pretty similar in the end, but doesn’t show all of what happens, might have been stronger, again, if I’d seen that first. But, just the way that the last few minutes of Departed plays out, actually left me dumb-struck in that way that all you can really do is laugh – sort of like a similar kind of moment in the Coen Bros’ movie BURN AFTER READING.

But, back to the performances just for a minute. There are two in THE DEPARTED that are just brilliant and vulgar and the two actors portraying them are pitch-perfect – and one was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. First is Alec Baldwin’s Elerby. He’s the commanding officer of the unit that Damon’s Colin works in. They’re the main force in charge of investigating and arresting Nicholson’s Frank Costello. Baldwin plays his character as an older man who loves playing “cops ‘n robbers”. He acts youthful and playful and throws tantrums when things don’t go his way. The other, and the award nominated performance is Mark Wahlberg’s Dignam. He’s the assistant to Sheen’s Queenan, and is the only other cop that knows DiCaprio is a cop. This might be the best performance that Wahlberg has ever given, and all he had to do was look like he’s losing his hair and amp up his Boston accent. You know from the first moment that you hear him talk that this character is one of those guys you love to hate. In one scene, when updating Baldwin and Damon’s group on the information their mole has uncovered, he’s asked if he has an actual man in with Costello and his reply is, “Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself,” and that’s pretty much his attitude throughout the movie. He also gets the opportunity to pull the last rug out from under us and be the last character we see…besides an actual rat that runs across the frame. The only other character to really talk about from either movie is Nicholson’s Frank Costello. Naturally, it’s Jack acting like Jack – with a Boston accent, sometimes. But, he brings a bit more of a menace, than Tsang’s Sam does, as well as helping to unnerve our undercover hero, by pretty much being insane. But, it’s always fun to watch Jack Nicholson chew up the scenery.

Overall these movies, that are basically the same movie, cover a bit of different ground. The thing that I think brings INFERNAL AFFAIRS down a bit, as with a lot of Asian cinema, actually, is they don’t tend to go as in-depth with the characters as (good) American movies do. Maybe, that’s just a cultural difference – where we tend to analyze everything, and from the little I know of Asian culture, they’re more about putting on a front and being more respectful and “polite”. (Is that culturally insensitive to say? I apologize, but I’m not sure how else to phrase it.) But, we get a lot more into the heads of Damon and DiCaprio’s characters – despite the Irish supposedly being impervious to psychoanalysis. We see more of what makes them tick, they’re interactions with their lady and the pressure of the job/s they do. We only get a couple of moments of seeing Yan breakdown in Affairs, but it’s mostly just him stating a couple of things about like, “I’m a cop” to his psychiatrist.

Of course, there are two sequels to INFERNAL AFFAIRS, since it ends a little differently than THE DEPARTED, and I’m kind of unsure whether I want to follow the series any further or not. I kind of suspect that at one point the fate that came to Colin eventually meets up with Inspector Lau, but I think that I’ll just stick with the Boston State Police’s version.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS trailer:

THE DEPARTED trailer:

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